Municipal, regional and federal police services are responsible for enforcing provincial/territorial and federal impaired driving laws.
Impaired drivers are most often detected at sobriety checkpoints, or during routine traffic stops where police have reasonable suspicion that the driver may be impaired. Increasingly, citizens are also helping police to identify potentially dangerous drivers by calling 911 to report suspected impaired drivers.
The sobriety checkpoint is one of the primary tools which police use to detect impaired drivers. Police set up checkpoints on public roadways and stop all vehicles coming through, enabling the screening of large numbers of drivers.
Drivers are asked whether they’ve been drinking and if so, how much, over what time period etc. Based on the answers, any obvious signs of intoxication and behavioural clues, the officer determines whether he or she has reasonable grounds to demand a breath test. If so, the driver blows into a breathalyzer device (approved screening device) that measures the amount of alcohol in his or her breath. If the breathalyzer result indicates a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over the legal limit of .08%, or over the .05% level at which most provincial sanctions take effect, the police can ask the driver to take do another breath test on a more sophisticated machine (approved instrument). It is only the results of the approved instrument that are admissible in court if the driver is charged with an impaired driving offence.
While most people think of impaired driving as “drunk” driving or related specifically to alcohol, impairment by drugs is also a serious problem. Various national and provincial studies indicate that driving after drug use is commonplace, and the rate of driving after cannabis use is increasing, particularly among the young.
Though driving while impaired by drugs has been an offence since 1925, police had little means of enforcing the provision. In 2008, the Government of Canada passed an amendment that gave police authority, in specific circumstances, to demand that impaired driving suspects participate in a drug recognition evaluation (DRE). Officers are specially trained and certified to conduct a DRE to determine if the driver is impaired by drugs and, if so, what type of drug. The DRE involves two major components and consists of a series of steps to help the officer determine if drugs are involved. If the officer concludes that a suspect is impaired by drugs, he or she is then authorized to demand a blood, urine or saliva sample from the suspects.
Call 911 Programs
Increasingly, members of the public are contacting police to report suspected impaired drivers. Thanks to programs such as MADD Canada’s Campaign 911 and other Call 911 programs, the public is becoming more aware of the signs of impaired driving and what they should do if they spot a driver they suspect is impaired.
Effective 911 programs increase arrest rates for impaired driving by 30% on average.
Challenges with the Detection of Impaired Drivers
Police can currently demand a roadside breath sample but only if they have reasonable suspicion the driver has been drinking. That reasonable suspicion is based on behavioural clues and observations (manner of driving, the odour on a driver’s breath, lack of coordination, bloodshot eyes, and slurred or indistinct speech). The difficulty is that, in the brief interaction with police, only a small percentage of drinking drivers will exhibit clear and obvious signs of intoxication, particularly if they routinely drink and drive. As a result, a good number of impaired drivers are not being detected.
That is why MADD Canada strongly supports the introduction of random breath testing legislation in Canada. This amendment to the Criminal Code would give police the authority to demand breath samples from all drivers pulled over at checkpoints, thereby increasing their ability to detect impaired driving and increasing the deterrent effect of Canada’s impaired driving laws. Random breath testing is a proven effective measure that has significantly reduced the rate of impaired driving crashes, deaths and injuries in countries where it has been introduced.