At any given time, on any given day, there’s likely someone behind the wheel and under the influence.
Impaired driving in the province continues to be a challenge to mitigate, with officials in the region saying the Southeast is no exception.
Few officers covering a large area proves to be a problem in catching impaired drivers, Mounties say.
"We can only be in so many places at once," Eastman Traffic Services Cp.. Terry Sundell said.
Steinbach and roads in the surrounding area are monitored by a dedicated RCMP detachment split between municipal and rural supervision. However, officers often have scant resources to monitor the streets for imprudent drivers.
In recent years, RCMP say they have come to lean on the public’s vigilance and recently-changed legislation to deter driving under the influence.
"There’s no doubt we rely on [the public]," Steinbach RCMP Staff Sgt. Harold Laninga said.
Despite new laws helping with the legal legwork of holding impaired drivers accountable and clearing up provincial court systems which can get clogged up with Highway Traffic Act offences, the problem of impaired driving persists.
In December 2019 provincial traffic legislation was amended and the Immediate Roadside Prohibition program came to be, granting first offenders some slack if caught impaired behind the wheel.
The program is modelled after a similar piece of legal framework passed in British Columbia in 2010.
Differing from an arrest and impaired driving charge, an IRP comes with no criminal record and fewer penalties.
At the time of the announcement, former Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the roads would be safer under the new legislation.
"The strong sanctions in place are yet another good reason to make the right choice and never drive while impaired. Manitoba continues to be a leader in dealing with impaired drivers, and together we are saving lives," he said.
Under the IRP program a driver suspected to be impaired can be subject to a screening using an Approved Screening Device, or more commonly known as a breathalyzer test.
Failure of a breathalyzer in the IRP program comes with a three-month license suspension, vehicle impoundment followed by one year of the Ignition Interlock Program, a built-in breathalyzer which a driver must pass to start their vehicle.
In Manitoba, the legal limit for Blood Alcohol Content is 80 milligrams per 100 ml of blood. A reading between 50 and 79 milligrams is considered a "warning" and anything 80 or over is classified as a failure.
Laninga and Sundell said the IRP program has vastly changed the landscape of how drunk drivers are punished.
Approximately 300 of 1,100 impaired driving investigations over the last year have been diverted from the court system because of the IRP program, Sundell said, though it’s only "scratching the surface" of apprehending the actual number of impaired drivers on the road.
According to Manitoba Public Insurance, in 2018 there were a total of 1,453 alcohol-related Criminal Code offense convictions including 852 convictions for driving with a BAC over 80 milligrams and 539 convictions for impaired driving. MPI has since stopped tracking impaired driving statistics.
In 2019 Statistics Canada reported an increase in police-reported impaired driving, ending a downward trend that began in 2011. Police services in Canada reported a total of 85,673 incidents of impaired driving that year.
While the IRP seems to help officers divert attention back to monitoring the roads and responding to calls for service, one lawyer says the program presents as a slap on the wrist rather than a serious consequence to drinking and driving.
"On the one hand, the government is saying there's a really big problem, and at the same time the government's also saying, ‘Yeah, but you could do it and you don't have to get a criminal charge,’" lawyer Michael Dyck said.
"The reason they do it is because they're trying to save valuable resources and time in the justice system, it's a cost-saving technique."
As for issuing an IRP, the legislation can close an investigation in as little time as one hour, whereas arresting and charging someone with impaired driving could take all evening depending on the circumstances, Sundell said.
However, impaired drivers will not be diverted from roadways by way of a single piece of legislation.
"For us to understand how to deal with the problem, we have to understand what the problem is, though. And I think impaired driving is a very complex problem," Sundell said.
From a legal standpoint, Dyck, who has carved out a niche for himself in defending impaired driving cases in Steinbach and Winnipeg, speculates accessibility to licensed establishments is cause for impaired driving in the region.
"People aren’t necessarily thinking to call a cab to take them from La Broquerie to Steinbach," Dyck said.
"[Drivers] think, ‘It’s a short drive, it’s not that far; I’ll take a back road’…they’re crossing their fingers and hoping for the best."
Dyck said the chances of interacting with law enforcement in rural areas are far lower than in a metropolitan area such as Winnipeg.
"If you don’t think you’re going to bump into one of the three officers working the night shift, yeah, you’re probably more likely to roll the dice," he said.
In Manitoba, while the province had the lowest provincial rate of impaired drivers in 2019 including Winnipeg reporting as one of the Census Metropolitan Areas with the lowest rates of impaired driving across the country, RCMP say the IRP program will only see rates of impaired drivers increase.
"If you put more officers on the road, there's more chance that we will get more impaired drivers. And that's kind of the sad part about this whole issue; I think if we had more officers on the road right now we would just see impaired driving numbers go up," Sundell said.
"Statistically, we’re only scratching the surface with impaired driving."
What Dyck and law enforcement do agree on is the need to relay the risk of getting caught to mitigate impaired drivers on the road.
Initiatives such as the Roadwatch Program, a once-monthly check stop blitz to catch impaired drivers, and holiday check stop programs have been effective in doing that, however more resources would be beneficial to officers.
"There’s the residual benefit to having more police officers visible," Laninga said.
To Dyck, that may not be enough.
"People are aware that this is an issue, but they're going to keep doing it because they can get away with it."