TORONTO -- Impaired driving charges have dropped across the Greater Toronto Area since the pandemic began beyond what would be in line with the reduced traffic on the roads, according to figures reviewed by CTV News Toronto.

It’s not entirely clear why, though possible explanations range from genuinely safer streets thanks to a stay-at-home order that discourages visits to bars and restaurants, to challenges prosecuting impaired driving charges in a pandemic.

“More and more people are staying home and can consume at home, which is certainly a factor that points to a reduction in impaired driving,” Peel police Const. Akhil Mooken said.

Mooken said officers have donned masks and personal protective equipment for their R.I.D.E. checkstops, and altered the way they approach potentially impaired drivers to avoid exposure.

“Certainly the pandemic and the concerns surrounding COVID-19 have changed how officers conduct business, especially when trying to detect the odor of alcoholic breath on someone. Really, that’s not feasible anymore,” he said.

According to figures released by Peel police, officers stopped 24,334 people in December 2020 R.I.D.E. stop – about 15 per cent fewer than 2019.

But impaired driving charges dropped some 36 per cent to 33, and excess blood alcohol charges dropped about 35 per cent to 83 – proportionally, a bigger drop.

Over in Durham Region, the effect was more pronounced: officers stopped 8,464 cars in December 2020, down about 56 per cent from the same month in 2019. The number of breath tests they administered dropped 77 per cent to 175.

In Toronto, the number of checkpoints actually increased by about 12 per cent. But the force made almost 30 per cent fewer arrests.

It could be hopeful news, said Andrew Murie of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But he worried that it’s a sign that police aren’t using mandatory roadside screening as much as they could – because it would put them in close contact with a driver.

“We started to see an upsurge in roadside screening and COVID sent that spiral going the other way,” Murie said. 

Defence lawyer Calvin Barry told CTV News Toronto he believes one factor could be the recent directive by the provincial government to reduce a court backlog by reducing some impaired charges to Highway Traffic Act violations if there is no death, crash or injury.

“If they know a lot of those matters are not going to court and there’s no ‘oomph’ they’re finding they’re reluctant to lay charges in this environment,” he said.

Mooken said Peel police are regularly using the roadside screening device, and officers see a reduction in the number of charges as still as sign there is more work to do.

“We will continue to be out there. We do have a commitment to road safety. We want to know that roads are safe,” he said.