As spring starts to pop up across Saskatchewan, so do the secrets of the past winter. Lurking in the ditches are signs of how people spent the season, and it wasn't sober.
Donna Kovatch has lived in White City, just east of Regina, for more than 30 years and has been cycling the highways around her community for 25 years. Last year alone she rode more than 600 kilometres.
Finding the odd empty beer bottle or empty pack of cigarettes isn't unusual to the avid cyclist. This year, however, has been a different story.
"You can't go more than five feet before you find another bottle," Kovatch said.
Full of bottles
Her first ride of the season took her along Highway 33 near Emerald Park. The more she rode, the more she noticed the ditches were full of empty alcohol bottles.
Kovatch said she has found 40-ounce bottles, an assortment of beer cans and bottles, coolers and even drug paraphernalia.
She said it's never been this bad before and the change is making her think twice about her favourite pastime.
"I do have these moments when I am out, especially when I am out here alone, I don't know what i am going to meet on that road," she said.
Kovatch has reason to be concerned for her safety.
In 2019, Statistics Canada reported Saskatchewan was tied with Newfoundland and Labrador, and P.E.I., for the highest rates of impaired driving in the country.
From 2009 to 2018, the average number of impaired driving deaths in Saskatchewan was 54 per year, and the average number for impaired driving-related injuries was 595 per year, according to Saskatchewan Government Insurance.
In 2019, the province recorded 21 fatalities and 332 injuries due to impaired driving — down from 2018's 42 deaths and 360 injuries.
Preliminary datas from SGI for 2021 shows things are going in the wrong direction. The latest data shows impaired driving crashes increased to 658, resulting in 370 injuries and 33 deaths.
Tyler McMurchy is a spokesperson for SGI. He said the number of impaired driving charges aren't higher or lower in rural or urban areas, but there is one deadly difference.
"We tend to see more collisions that result in people deaths on provincial highways and rural roads disproportionately compared to city streets, because of the high speeds involved," McMurchy said.
He also said single vehicle roll-overs resulting in death are more common in rural areas. Beyond speed, location is also a determining factor in the outcome.
"What people have to understand is, a lot fatalities happen on a quiet country road," McMurchy said.
"Yes, you are less likely to encounter a police officer, but you are also less likely to have someone who sees the crash in time to get you help and it's going to take longer for the help to arrive."
McMurchy warned that as the temperature begins to rise, so will the number of impaired driving crashes and fatalities.
As for the empty bottles in ditched, McMurchy said it doesn't necessarily mean there is an increased issue in a certain community, but rather something law enforcement will take seriously.
"It's good that people are noticing and reporting this, it helps," McMurchy said.
He encouraged people to report any unusual behaviour by calling 911 immediately and said "enforcement of impaired driving remains strong in Saskatchewan."
Back out on her bike, Kovatch said she will continue riding, keeping one eye on the ditch and reporting what she finds.
She has decided to change her approach to highway riding. She isn't sure yet if her days of solo rides are over, but said she is adding a GPS tracker to her phone so her husband can track her safety while she is out alone.
Kovatch's goal is to make the roads safe for everyone, not just cyclists.
"I am hopeful that maybe we can create some awareness, even in our own community, so that people will think twice about it."