|A Kelowna RCMP officer stops drivers along Clement Avenue during a police road check last month.|
The latest figures released Thursday show the rate of impaired driving in the Central Okanagan was the highest in the country. The rate ballooned 76 per cent in five years to 583 impaired-driving incidents per 100,000 population in 2011.
"We still have a large proportion of our citizens that continue to drive impaired," said Kelowna RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon. "(It's) somewhat alarming."
Statistics Canada, which ranked the
33 largest metropolitan areas in the country, found the Kelowna area had twice the proportion of drunk drivers than the national average. It notched 1,063 impaired-driving incidents in 2011.
St. John's, Nfld., a larger centre, placed a close second with 1,056 impaired-driving incidents and a rate of 560 per 100,000 population.
RCMP attribute the spike in Kelowna to cracking down harder on impaired drivers. The local force has taken advantage of special ICBC funding to set up more road checks in the last few years to catch drunks behind the wheel, McKinnon said.
"We've made a concentrated effort to deal with impaired drivers and do a better job than we had been."
Other B.C. cities filled out the list's top 10: Abbotsford-Mission placed fourth, Victoria sixth and Vancouver ninth.
The province introduced new measures in 2010 that allow police to impose 90-day roadside prohibitions on motorists whose blood-alcohol content is higher than .08 instead of charging them criminally. B.C. is the only province to legislate the administrative penalties, which could explain the higher rankings.
Police in B.C. welcomed their new powers because officers had been more inclined to suspend a drunk driver for 24 hours instead of charging him with impaired.
"Things are a little bit skewed because of the new legislation," McKinnon said. "More times than not, people were given 24-hour suspensions . . . because the members couldn't afford to be taken off the road for five hours."
Another factor is the high volume of visitors who flock to this area - Tourism Kelowna says 1.4 million - each year. When you consider many come to party in summer, officers can pull over several
unsteady drivers in one night.
And it may not be due to alcohol. A survey of 506 Kelowna drivers last June found 12.3 per cent of them tested positive for drugs. The rate more than doubled the proportion of drug-positive drivers tested in Vancouver.
The roadside survey was conducted by Beirness and Associates in Ottawa. Interviewers randomly selected drivers in five B.C. cities. They asked them to provide a voluntary breath sample and an oral fluid sample. Cannabis and cocaine were detected most
"They're telling us they've got just as many people stoned on the road as impaired," said McKinnon. "People should not be driving under the effect of these drugs."
The national rate of impaired driving was 262 cases for every 100,000 people, a two-per cent rise from 2010. Drivers aged 20 to 24 recorded the highest rates of any age group in 2011.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving CEO Andrew Murie said he is "extremely disappointed" by the rising numbers but not completely surprised.
"Despite the obvious and well-known risks to both the impaired drivers and those around them, we know people continued to drive impaired," he said in a news release.