Canadian stats on impaired driving deaths incomplete, years out of date

Canada’s statistics on impaired and distracted driving fatalities, as well as drowning deaths, are incomplete and years out of date because the BC Coroners Service has repeatedly failed to share its data with the agencies that compile the national numbers.

A CBC News investigation has determined that the information gap, which in some cases stretches back almost a decade, has held up the publication of annual reports and caused safety organizations to guess at countrywide trends and put asterisks next to their findings. And it’s creating headaches for advocates and policy-makers who want to know if laws and enforcement measures are working as they should.

“It’s appalling,” said Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada. “We’re almost [in] 2020 and we’re still working off 2014 [numbers]. We’ve had historical events in this country, like the legalization of recreational cannabis, with the big issue and debate around driving and what effect it’s going to have, and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA), an interprovincial body that deals with highway safety, traditionally releases its annual Alcohol and Drug Crash Problem report each January. Drawing on police, insurance, coroner and medical examiner data from across the country, it’s the definitive source on what has gone wrong on the country’s roads.

But the last CCMTA report came out almost three years ago in January 2017. And it was based on 2014 data — or in the case of British Columbia, extrapolated 2010 numbers. 

The Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), an independent non-profit that gathers and analyzes the data for the CCMTA report, says it has been having difficulty prying numbers out of the BC Coroners Service for years.

“We’ve been trying to get that data because it represents anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent of the population,” said Steve Brown, who oversees TIRF’s national fatality database and co-authors the Alcohol and Drug Crash report. “We’re doing everything at our end. We’ve filled out all the research agreements and that type of thing.”

Earlier this year, the BC Coroners Service finally provided its 2011 and 2012 figures. But the holdup continues for the province’s more recent years; that’s in contrast to other Canadian jurisdictions, which have all provided their road death numbers through at least 2016.

“You think, in the information age, that it would be easier to get data, but that’s not always the case,” said Brown. “We’re … just trying to be as patient as we can with this.”

‘No other source as valid’

B.C.’s death disclosure problems have also affected an annual report on water fatalities across the country. This past summer, the Drowning Prevention Research Centre released its 2019 findings — based on 2016 data — noting that absence of definitive numbers from Canada’s third most populous province.

“They weren’t ready and we just made the call that says, better to have three territories and nine provinces with their data, and let B.C. catch up by next year,” said Doug Ferguson, CEO of Drowning Prevention Research Centre.

Ferguson said his centre was still able to glean partial B.C. drowning death information from police and media reports, but it’s likely that they missed some cases. He worries that the incomplete report might hamper municipalities or other water safety agencies as they try to fine-tune and target their public awareness campaigns. 

“You’re not flying blind, but you’re using old data,” said Ferguson. “There is no other source as valid as a coroner’s office.”

The RCMP say a new mandatory alcohol screening law is proving effective in taking impaired drivers off Canadian roads. But there are no comprehensive national numbers to back up that claim. (CBC)

Andy Watson, a spokesperson for the BC Coroners Service, attributes the delays to the surge in deaths caused by the opioid crisis and the declaration of a provincial public health emergency in April 2016.

“One of the challenges that we were faced with a couple of years ago, really, it was the illicit drug crisis was expanding, and hitting British Columbia, I think, disproportionately harder than other provinces,” said Watson. “It was a reprioritization of resources at the time.”

But given that the timely sharing of B.C. data was a problem well before the spike in fentanyl and carfentanil overdose deaths, other issues appear to be at play.

In a followup response, Watson allowed that the BC Coroners Service has been slowed by “a myriad of factors,” including privacy concerns, revamped research agreements, the creation of a new electronic data management system and turnover in staff.

Regardless, the agency is promising to do better and says it will hand over its 2013 through 2017 road death information to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation at some point next year.

“The best I can tell you at this stage is that we are working on that and catching up on that now,” said Watson. “We recognize the importance of that data and that’s why we’re making it a priority at this stage.”

For safety groups like MADD Canada, however, the promise rings hollow.

Murie says his organization has been looking for alternative data sources so it can analyze trends and critique government policy without having to wait for the various federal and provincial agencies to get their act together.

“To be honest with you, in the last year or so, I have just kind of given up,” he said. “Because even if they were to put out data for tomorrow and it’s [for] 2015, what does it tell us?”

It’s all in sharp contrast to the coroner-based process in the United States, which produces updated national numbers each spring via the federally funded Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

“That’s great that B.C. is going to get caught up,” said Murie. “But, you know, the Americans have already produced their 2018 data, and next year, in April, they’ll do 2019.

“They can do trend data. We can’t.”

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