Why you should care

Impaired driving spikes during the summer months. What if this plan could keep you safe?

Forget plainclothes policing or fancy surveillance technology. The latest way cops are nabbing high and drunk drivers in the Canadian province of Ontario is by turning to an unlikely partner: pimply-faced fast-food workers stuck at restaurant drive-through windows.

In Barrie, police recently responded to Burger King employees by arresting a 34-year-old who had passed out drunk while waiting to place an order at the drive-through. Local officers also fielded a call from a McDonald’s where the staff reported that a drunkard exiting their drive-through had hit a vehicle and zoomed off. Over in Chatham, drive-through workers dialed the cops when a guy slipped into a boozy slumber and failed to pick up his food. And in Brantford, a patrol car blocked a green Ford from leaving an all-night drive-through after an employee there reported a driver who kept lurching forward and then braking suddenly.

We’ve seen a real step up from these drive-throughs in saying we want to work with police. I think it’s a great idea.

Andy Murie, CEO, MADD Canada

So pervasive is this kind of problem in Burlington — where 10 of 144 arrests involving impaired-driving charges occurred at a drive-through last year — that, in April, nearly 40 restaurants agreed to join forces with the local police. Welcome to Project Drive Thru, which uses a training video (below) so employees can help police pinpoint punks who might be intoxicated behind the wheel. It’s already led to five arrests in three months and is set to expand through more of the Halton region, including the cities of Milton and Oakville — home to nearly 300,000 people combined. “If that’s successful, hopefully other services will want to participate,” says Dave Stewart, the Halton Regional Police Service constable who developed the program, complete with emoji-friendly awareness posters aimed at young cashiers. “I think there are a lot more impaired drivers out there we’re not getting.”

Summertime usually sees a spike in impaired driving in many jurisdictions around the world. But it’s the leading criminal cause of death and injury in Canada, which is the worst offender among 10 high-income countries with the highest percentage of crash-related deaths involving alcohol, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. That kind of reputation has led to all sorts of academic and political debates about boosting the drinking age for Canucks (currently 18 or 19, depending on the province or territory) or implementing a tax on alcohol that would get automatically increased — a provision that got yanked from a Senate bill in June. Meanwhile, some safe-driving advocates have decried the small yet growing number of liquor stores that are opening drive-through services, noting it’s tougher for cashiers to spot physical displays of intoxication like stumbling. Others are calling for broader education about the perils of consuming booze, given there were around 77,000 hospitalizations nationally last year due to conditions entirely caused by alcohol — more than for heart attacks.

Drunk driving is by no means limited to the land of the loonie, of course. There have been recent news reports of impaired drive-through visits in Waikato, New Zealand, and Stirling, Scotland. And it’s now the U.S. that’s the second-worst offender in the CDC’s report. In Connecticut, a 59-year-old was arrested for driving under the influence after he grabbed Taco Bell the night before Thanksgiving last year. And a 21-year-old Delaware man passed out at a McDonald’s drive-through before being tossed behind bars earlier this year. Turns out it was his third DUI arrest. Few Americans, though, seem willing to discuss whether anything similar to Project Drive Thru is already being tested in their backyard — the National Restaurant Association as well as state-based groups for California and New York, along with the National Association of Police Organizations, National Black Police Association and International Police Association, did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.

It’s been 120 years since an English taxi driver got caught in the world’s first drunk-driving arrest. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the rise of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), that bartenders, liquor store cashiers and other Good Samaritans in North America began calling 911 to report suspected impaired drivers. Safe-ride and safe-walk programs have since become more common at corporate parties, neighborhood gatherings and on many campuses. Yet Project Drive Thru in Burlington, which rolled out at certain McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, A&W, Wendy’s and Burger King locations, among other chains, expands these efforts to another heavily trafficked corner of the retail world. “We’ve seen a real step up from these drive-throughs in saying we want to work with police,” says Andy Murie, CEO of the anti-drinking-and-driving advocacy group MADD Canada. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Many caution that more still needs to be done to prevent future accidents. The most successful combatant against driving-related deaths among young people in Canada, Murie says, has included the introduction of graduated-licensing conditions with a zero-alcohol limit for those under 22 — certainly not general anti–drinking-and-driving ad campaigns that seem to have little direct impact on changing behavior.

Now safe-driving advocates are closely watching proposed legislation that will address impaired driving under cannabis as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government looks to legalize small amounts of marijuana by July 1 — Canada Day — next year. “We’ve seen a real surge in the number of drug-related deaths,” Murie says. “Cannabis is the No. 1 drug of choice, especially among young people. It’s a major concern for us.” Police in Burlington, at least, will have a head start on finding some of those with the munchies.

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