Life changed for the Van de Vorst family two years ago.
“All of a sudden, one night, you lose a third of your family,” recalls Linda Van de Vorst, whose son Jordan, his wife Chanda and their two children, Miguire and Kamryn, were killed by an impaired driver near Saskatoon on Jan. 3, 2016.
Now birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all remind the Van de Vorsts about the night a woman drove through a stop sign and slammed into the young family’s car.
Catherine McKay, 49, has since pleaded guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing death and is serving a 10-year sentence. Her blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was three times the legal limit.
The case shocked many in Saskatchewan and turned a spotlight on the high rates of drinking and driving in province.
In 2016, the Van de Vorsts were among 57 people who died and 464 who were injured in 1,000 collisions that happened as a result of impaired driving in the province. The 2017 numbers are not yet available, but an earlier Statistics Canada report showed Saskatchewan has the highest rates among the other provinces.
The problem has even crept its way into some of the highest public offices in Saskatchewan.
In August 2016, cabinet minister and former deputy premier Don McMorris pleaded guilty to having a blood-alcohol level of more than .08. He was fined and had his licence suspended for a year after he nearly rear-ended another vehicle while driving in Regina.
“These numbers are just too high,” said Kwei Quaye, vice-president of traffic safety and driver services at Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI), which runs the province’s licensing, car registration and insurance services. “Impaired driving, in our opinion, is a totally preventable type of behaviour.
“The consequences of this in terms of impacts on people’s lives and impact on their families is unacceptable.”
It’s unknown why the impaired driving rates are so much higher in Saskatchewan, but Quaye said it could be that people are unaware of the implications or don’t think they will get caught.
The province has started to address the problem with legislative changes in recent years. The changes include tougher penalties and vehicle seizures for first-time offences.
In the Van de Vorst case, SGI has filed a statement of claim in Saskatoon Court of Queen’s Bench against the corporations behind the two bars who served McKay before the collision. It’s the first time the agency has taken legal action against liquor establishments. No statement of defence has yet been filed.
Jim Bensa, president and chief executive officer for the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, said the legislative changes have come at a cost for businesses.
“As an industry, we’ve seen a dramatic effect,” he said, noting people are spending less money on alcohol when they are out. “People are really conscious about how much it is that they drink – we really noticed it at Christmas time.
“It really has hurt our industry.”
Some businesses have even had to close as a result, he says.
Still, no operators have asked the province to roll back the changes.
“We did have to change,” Bensa said. “Those statistics were real.”
Both he and the Van de Vorsts, however, said more personal responsibility must be taken by Saskatchewan drivers.
“The biggest thing for my husband and I is that people plan ahead and don’t drive drunk,” says Linda Van de Vorst. “It’s a personal responsibility to each individual.”
She worries that it will get worse instead of better with the legalization of marijuana in July.
WATCH BELOW: Saskatchewan introduces zero tolerance drug impaired driving rules
SGI has announced new legislation to deal with drug-impaired driving in November. The province will have zero tolerance for anyone driving with drugs in their system.
Quaye said they will have also brought in an additional 200 traffic enforcement officers in 2017 and continue to launch public awareness campaigns to remind people about why it’s important not to drink and drive – including one late last week on resolving to drive sober.
“We continue to look for ways and means to change the picture with respect to impaired driving,” he said. “There is a shift happening. We are very hopeful.”
“We are very hopeful that 2017 will be a totally different year than any we’ve seen in Saskatchewan.”