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John Bates

John Bates, an early pioneer in the movement against impaired driving, founded an organization to raise awareness about the dangerous act at a time when the penalty was a 90-day licence suspension and a $500 fine.
Courtesy of the Bates Family

It did not take long to stigmatize smoking – perhaps a generation. Similarly, in his lifetime, John Bates saw views about drunk driving shift far from the romantic Dean Martin-ish “one more for the road,” attitude, to the point where average citizens know the legal blood alcohol limit.

An early leader in the anti-impaired driving movement, Mr. Bates is credited with helping change Canadians’ attitudes about drinking and driving, making roads safer. Thanks in large measure to his efforts, we know what a designated driver is, and driving under the influence is widely recognized as a public health hazard. Drunk drivers are now social pariahs.

Mr. Bates “contributed to a significant reduction in impaired driving in Canada, helping to save countless lives,” said Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, an organization Mr. Bates helped found. His and others’ advocacy resulted, in Ontario at least, in graduated licensing for new and novice drivers (who are held to a blood alcohol level of zero); photographs on driver’s licenses; and more support for accident victims.

His 1998 Order of Canada citation stated, similarly, that Mr. Bates’s work in raising awareness of “the tragic consequences of impaired driving have resulted in a groundswell of public support for legislative reform. In changing society’s attitudes toward drinking and driving, he has helped to make our roads safer, reducing alcohol-related traffic fatalities through improved law-enforcement practices.”

Mr. Bates was living in suburban Toronto and working on trade and specialty magazines for Maclean-Hunter when tragedy struck his neighbours’ son. The neighbours were journalists June Callwood and Trent Frayne. Their son, Casey, then 20, was on his way back to Queen’s University in 1982 when his motorcycle was hit by a drunk driver going the wrong way, killing the young man.

“The penalty in those days was 90 days [licence suspension] and a $500 fine,” recalled Mr. Bates’s son, Michael. “My dad said, ‘Enough’s enough. We have to do something.'”

Indeed, his father remembered his wording more or less the same way.

“I had enough,” Mr. Bates told the Ottawa Citizen in 1999. “A number of us who were already active in causes decided we could do something about this.”

Mr. Bates gathered some like-minded friends around his dinner table and founded Citizens Against Impaired Driving (CAID), which later morphed into PRIDE (People to Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere), a bit of wordplay on the Toronto police’s spot-check RIDE program, which had begun around 1977. The group took its place alongside similar programs launched by citizens in other provinces at about the same time. Mr. Bates was further emboldened to act when his boss’s son was killed by a drunk driver.

He and others began a torrent of letter writing and meetings to pressure politicians to toughen laws and enact harsher penalties for drunk drivers. “There was a lot of impaired driving going on,” recalled Anne Leonard, president of the Toronto-based educational and advocacy group Arrive Alive Drive Sober, of which Mr. Bates was a vice-president and board member. Ms. Leonard’s ex-husband was severely injured by a drunk driver in 1979 and his best friend was killed by one in 1984. “As we said in our letters, ‘[Impaired drivers] have to know that they will be caught.'”

In the late 1980s, Mr. Bates went to Texas and started negotiations with the American founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Candy Lightner, to bring the group to this country. MADD Canada was formed in 1990 “to create a national network of victims/survivors and concerned citizens working to stop impaired driving and to support victims/survivors of this violent crime,” the organization says on its website. Mr. Bates was its first chairperson, and MADD Canada’s “most prestigious” volunteer award is named for him.

Advocacy work by Mr. Bates and others resulted in graduated licensing in Ontario for new and novice drivers (who are held to a blood alcohol level of zero); photographs on driver’s licences and more support for accident victims. The province also made changes to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act that have resulted in longer suspensions, higher fines, more jail time and the installation of ignition interlock devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting if it detects a blood alcohol concentration over a preset limit.

Mr. Bates opposed the sale of beer at corner stores and on golf courses. “Increased availability leads to increased consumption, leads to an increase in the problems that come with alcohol,” he told an interviewer in 1999.

He also pressed for seat belts on school buses.

A decade ago, Mr. Bates had a falling out with MADD Canada after a report by the Toronto Star that most of the millions donated to the organization was going to paid telemarketers, door knockers and direct mail companies hired to fundraise for the charity. The paper’s investigation found that only 19 cents on each dollar raised actually went toward campaigning against drunk driving or providing services to victims.

“We started off with no money at all. Now MADD has become a money machine working on fear and scare tactics,” Mr. Bates told the Star. “MADD head office has taken a national tragedy and turned it into a fundraising machine.”

Mr. Bates was dropped from MADD’s charity’s finance and policy committees for asking, as he put it, “too many questions. But I don’t believe in spending donor money the way MADD head office does and I feel I had a responsibility to speak out.”

He said at the time that he felt betrayed. The charity subsequently changed its practices to become more transparent.

“He stood up for what’s right,” his son said. “He never benefited personally. Everything he did was on a volunteer basis. More importantly it’s this social viewpoint about drinking and driving that has changed because of what my dad did.”

Despite all that effort and marked declines in impaired driving, the offence remains the leading criminal cause of death in Canada, claiming almost twice as many lives per year as all categories of homicide combined, according to MADD Canada.

In Canada, 45,394 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes from 1982 to 2013, the organization pointed out, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noting that Canada had the highest percentage of alcohol-related crash deaths (33.6 per cent) among 20 high-income countries in 2013.

John Gordon Bates, who died of heart and lung failure in Toronto on Nov. 10 at the age of 90, was born in that city on May 21, 1927. He doubtless learned about public health at the knee of his father, Gordon Anderson Bates, a physician who served as a medical officer in the Canadian Armed Forces during the First World War.

Dr. Bates left his medical practice after the war to help organize the Canadian National Council for Combatting Venereal Disease, at a time when an estimated one in 10 Canadians had gonorrhea or syphilis. Prudishness and ignorance, he believed, were blocking educational efforts. His 1975 obituary in The Globe and Mail said the blunt-spoken doctor was “the first Canadian physician to use the words syphilis and gonorrhea in public speeches. He nagged newspaper editors until they admitted the words to their news and editorial columns.”

The organization later became the more primly named Canadian Social Hygiene Council, and in 1936, the Health League of Canada was established to examine all areas of disease control. As the League’s founder and director, Dr. Bates crusaded for such public-health initiatives as the pasteurization of milk, fluoridation of communal water and immunization against communicable diseases. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1970.

His son, meantime, had shown great promise as a sprinter, setting a local junior record in the 100-yard dash. But his father forbade him from going to Olympic Games trials because the lad’s grades weren’t up to scratch.

John Bates got into advertising and in 1961, joined Maclean-Hunter, working on trade publications geared for jewellers, grocers and the transport industry, at first in advertising and sales and later in their writing, editing and production. When publishing for bus drivers, truckers and car owners, he did not shy from advancing his anti-impairment message, his son said. His skills were recognized with the Kenneth R. Wilson Award for Excellence in Business Publishing Journalism, which he won seven times.

In addition to the Order of Canada, Mr. Bates’ many laurels included the Ontario Solicitor-General Crime Prevention Award (1984), the Ontario Addiction Research Foundation Award of Distinction (1987) and the Arrive Alive Drive Sober Lifetime Achievement Award (2012).

He leaves his wife of 62 years, Connie (née Wilkie); children, Karen, Michael and Susan; and five grandchildren.

Is it possible to gauge how many lives in Canada have been saved because of the efforts of Mr. Bates, his colleagues and the authorities they influenced? Based on a formula developed by a U.S. traffic-safety expert who looked at collision rates, driving patterns and other variables, the number of lives spared in this country because of reductions in alcohol-related crashes between 1982 and 2013 is 42,526.


Source: The Globe and Mail