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Call for mandatory drink-drive education

People with drinking problems who have been convicted of impaired driving offences are not forced to get treatment by law, according to addictions counsellor Fiona Elkinson.

However, a Bermuda Government spokesman said making education programmes focusing on driving under the influence mandatory, an idea raised in the 2011 Throne Speech, was still being considered.

Ms Elkinson, who runs the DUI Education Programme, has repeated her call for the programme to be made mandatory to help tackle the Island's drink-driving problem.

She is disappointed that the former Throne Speech pledge had not been carried out and that the numbers attending the programme have dropped since more punitive measures were put in place.

“Our numbers fell, so we're frustrated,” Ms Elkinson told The Royal Gazette. “It's the drinking and driving attitude, and the system is not making people try and change it.”

Ms Elkinson said because the programme was optional, “people who have big drinking problems are not having to get any treatment and the law is not making them”.

She spoke out after Magistrate Archibald Warner and defence lawyer Saul Dismont called last week for better ways of dealing with chronic drink-drivers.

Louis Somner, a Bermuda Industrial Union organiser, was fined $4,000 and banned from the roads for five years for his third impaired driving offence.

Mr Dismont requested the matter be dealt with in Drug Treatment Court, but was told the programme was not equipped to deal with repeat offenders.

According to Ms Elkinson, the National Drug Commission-recognised DUI education programme, set up by Cecile Harris in 2001 and run by Bermuda Professional Counselling Services, helped to identify people with drinking problems and could get them help early on.

“People don't realise that we do assessments as part of the 12-hour education programme,” she said.

“We know who's got problems, we know who doesn't have problems, we see them for 12 hours. We're catching people before it's a big problem, so we're preventing big problems.

“We're all drug and alcohol-licensed, registered and certified counsellors, so we're not just some person taking a name and making the people read a book and watch a video.”

Ms Elkinson said that, according to her interpretation of road traffic legislation, magistrates had to make offenders aware of the programme and lawyers were supposed to hand out their information to anyone who was arrested for an impaired driving offence.

But she said the problem was that people could just opt out.

“When the magistrate is saying that the system doesn't work, he's expressing frustration, as are we, because people are able to choose not to go because the Act says that they don't have to,” she said. “I know the magistrates can't make people do the programme, but he didn't even mention that.”

The DUI education programme offers a 12-hour course that can knock three months off a disqualification period for offenders convicted of impaired driving. About three years ago, the programme took in 80 to 90 people on a yearly basis, Ms Elkinson said, but this has fallen to “a trickle” of about 30 people.

Ms Elkinson said this was because the more punitive measures introduced last year had removed the incentive to attend.

“The incentive used to be, you were off the road for 12 months, you would get three months back if you did the education programme,” she said. “Now you're off 18 months and they're still getting three months off. They've just paid $1,800 fines — they're only going to get 10 per cent off their time and they just say, ‘Sorry, I can't afford it'.”

The course costs $450 and is well received, Ms Elkinson said, adding that even clients had told her that it should be mandatory.

“Everybody who comes through the programme feels it helped them, it benefited them, and it made a big difference to their outlook. For some people, it changed their lives.

“They just don't like how much it costs. And they don't understand why it costs money. We have to charge because we have no support from the Government.”

Ms Elkinson said the price could drop if more people came through the programme, adding: “We do not turn anyone away. Anyone who needs this programme, anyone who calls, will be told to come whether they can pay or not.

“We've told everyone, including the courts — the magistrates, who don't even mention us — the police know. I don't understand why we get so marginalised.”

According to the government spokesman, the transport ministry is giving further consideration “to requiring mandatory or compulsory attendance and completion of a DUI educational programme”.

He added that another organisation had recently been approved to provide educational programmes to help to curb unsafe driving practices.

“The ministry believes that it is important to ensure the best approach is applied to obtain effective results,” he said.

“Awareness and knowledge is important but behavioural change is the goal.”

The spokesman said the Government's concern about the issue and the importance of effective programmes to assist were reflected in the 2015 Throne Speech, which advocated that those who drink alcohol should do so responsibly.

“It was also noted that licensed premises will be required to effect a stricter regime for the service of alcohol,” he added.

Magistrate's appeal: Archibald Warner spoke out last week in support of finding better ways to deal with chronic drink-drivers

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Published November 27, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated November 27, 2015 at 3:29 am)

Call for mandatory drink-drive education

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