Lorraine Sommerfeld recalls the time, 34 years ago, a reckless drunk driver altered her life forever
I was 17 when I walked into the kitchen one cold January morning. It was just after 6 a.m., and the radio that sat perched on a shelf was churning out the news. My Dad had a look on his face I’d never seen before.
“Rainey, Allan’s been killed.” I don’t recall most of the following week, though I’ve never forgotten the last 34 years. When your first boyfriend gets killed by a drunk driver, time warps, and then flattens out.
Attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed a great deal. Canada has in place zero tolerance for young and new drivers; we’ve seen the “acceptable” blood alcohol content (BAC) drop to 0.05 from 0.08, though in Saskatchewan, where alcohol-related driving offences persist, they’ve dropped it to 0.04. Ontario has the RIDE program; Alberta and Manitoba have the Checkstop Program; British Columbia has the CounterAttack program; every populated part of Canada has a version of it. It’s that time of year when you can expect to encounter a phalanx of police cars as you go through the holiday season.
We have a tangled relationship with alcohol and driving. One is a right; one is a privilege. Your eyes can glaze over trying to ascertain the effects of booze on people of different weights and genders. You watch people start making important decisions about their ability to drive home after they’re half-plastered, and we actually need commercials to tell us it’s OK to take the keys away from someone. Who wants to get into an altercation with a mean drunk?
The Internet is awash in do-it-yourself kits for those trying to plan their drinking and driving. Buy your own breathalizer! Blow and go! Couple things to remember, though. The only number that will matter is the one on the equipment the police use, and your BAC will actually go up for 30 to 90 minutes after your last drink. Your get out of jail free card might be the exact opposite. The average price of those kits is about $120; that’s a few cab fares.
Across Canada, laws have been tightened in recent years. Depending on the province you live in, that first offence 0.05 can cost you a licence suspension and/or vehicle impoundment from 24 hours to three days. In some cases in Ontario if there is a sober passenger, they can drive your car. If somebody in your car is sober and can drive, why the hell were you behind the wheel?
Many of us were raised with 0.08 being the magic cut off point. It is, in a way, only now it defines where criminal charges can set in. If you’re thinking of playing Name That Impairment, cops are getting specialty training to identify a wide range of drugs – both legal and illegal. If they suspect impairment, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
There are people who cry foul at the RIDE and Checkstop-type programs. There are others who take to Twitter to warn of where checkpoints have been set up. I admit to a secret dark place in my cold heart for these people. Ride checks take seconds – literally. I’m against cars being tracked for insurance purposes, I’m against monitoring how and where your kids drive and virtually every other Big Brother tentacle we keep getting sold in the name of safety. I am not against you being asked if you’ve been drinking while you’re on the road.
Your reaction to booze can change with your mood, your health, how tired you are or what you’ve eaten. It can change with age. Lists of numbers and stats that generalize can’t capture any of this, but you know what you know whether you admit it to anyone else or not.
As a kid, we didn’t use seatbelts on long trips; I can’t remember if the old ’66 Rambler even had seatbelts. Today that is inconceivable to me. As a kid, I remember my Dad spending afternoons drinking beer with my uncle (they didn’t like each other; there was a lot of beer) and then he’d drive us home. Today that is inconceivable to me. I hope the current generation will make the idea of texting while they’re driving inconceivable for the next one – it’s even worse than impaired driving.
Pleading with the hardcore drinkers is never going to change them. I wince when I read of people who have stacked up multiple DUIs and wish the court systems would recognize that impaired driving is like handing a drunk a handgun. Our cars are weapons; impaired drivers can be killers.
But don’t name a designated driver for me. Don’t take a cab because I’m asking you to. Don’t even do it because it’s the law. Do it for that 20-year-old boy who died 34 years ago.
And do it for that 17-year-old girl who was changed forever.