Notice how they don’t call it drunk driving any more? Impaired driving is the term police and safe-driving advocates now prefer to use, and for good reason: Alcohol is just one of many substances causing death and destruction on Alberta roads and highways.
According to Detective Conrad Moschansky, a drug recognition expert with the Edmonton police, a virtual cornucopia of drugs – both legal and illegal – are turning up in the bloodstreams of Alberta motorists.
Sometimes these drugsappear alone, but more often than not they are mixed in with other debilitating substances, including alcohol, creating an all-too-frequently lethal cocktail of impairment.
We’re not talking just illegal drugs, either. In addition to the usual suspects, such as marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, crystal methamphetamine, PCP, crack cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and GHB, a number of prescription drugs also affect the ability to operate a motor vehicle. These include everything from prescription tranquilizers (members of the benzodiazepine drug family) to seemingly innocuous over-the-counter medicines such as antihistamines. And while it’s obvious to most drivers that operating a motor vehicle while high on cocaine or marijuana is illegal – not to mention potentially deadly – there are some who think that because their medication was prescribed by a physician it’s OK to pop and drive.
Think again, says Moschansky. Impairment is not about the type of drug that’s in your system; it’s about the fact that you are impaired. And when a police officer judges this to be the case, motorists are arrested and charged, regardless of whether or not the drug in question was obtained from a dope dealer or the neighbourhood pharmacist. Moschansky illustrates the point by noting that one of the first tests he administered after becoming a certified drug recognition expert concerned a woman who drove onto a curb and hit two pedestrians. “It turned out she had seven different drugs in her system,” he says, “all of them prescribed.”
And yes, she was arrested.
Unfortunately, the extent of drug use among Alberta drivers is difficult to determine. While police officers are legally able to perform on-the-spot tests for alcohol impairment, this is not the case with respect to most drugs. What’s more, only a handful of police officers across the country are properly trained in drug recognition, so many drug-impaired drivers continue to slip through the net.
However, the data that is available is sobering. A recent study of fatally injured drivers in B.C. showed that nine per cent of crashes involved drugs alone and 11 per cent involved alcohol and drugs. A 2002 Quebec study found that drug residues were evident in the urine of 32 per cent of fatally injured drivers, with cannabis (20 per cent) and benzodiazepines (10 per cent) showing up most frequently. And an early 1980s bodily fluid analysis of seriously injured drivers admitted to the Regional Trauma Unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto found that cannabinoids were present in 13.9 per cent of admitted cases, followed by benzodiazepines (12.4 per cent) and cocaine (5.3 per cent).
The ability of legally sober – yet illegally impaired – drivers to escape arrest and prosecution, however, may soon change. If passed, the federal initiative Bill C-16 will give police officers the power to demand urine samples, thereby providing them with the “smoking gun” necessary to guarantee prosecution in most drug-impairment cases. Also in the works: more trained drug recognition experts. Moschansky says he’s planning to offer a course to 26 police officers from across Alberta, and doubtless more courses to even more officers will follow. The goal, he says, is to ensure that every Check Stop in the province has a drug recognition expert on hand to assess drivers who appear impaired but are not under the influence of alcohol, something that can easily be determined in a few seconds with the use of a hand-held breathalyzer.
Traffic safety advocates and experts are also doing their part to stem the tide of drug impairment by embarking on public education campaigns designed to encourage more Alberta drivers to think about the substances they ingest. A good example is this year’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Red Ribbon campaign. Louise Knox, MADD’s chapter services manager for western Canada, explains the association’s new focus on both drug and alcohol impairment. “We know alcohol is not the only culprit,” she says. “Although it’s hard to measure, we know that drugs and driving are a huge problem.” And believe it or not, one of the ways they know is that people who consume drugs and drive sometimes brag about it. “They email us or call us and tell us that they actually drive better when they’re stoned on pot because they drive more slowly or some such thing,” she says, a note of bemusement in her voice.
As for setting out under the influence of legal substances, Knox asserts: “Everyone has to do their own analysis. Ask yourself, Would you want a driver coming at you or one of your loved ones who is impaired in this fashion?”
For the fourth year in a row, MADD is teaming up with AMA, a fit Knox says is natural. “We’re extremely compatible. AMA is a grassroots organization that listens to its members, and their members tell them this is a serious problem that affects every community in our province.”
These sentiments are echoed by Don Szarko, the AMA’s Edmonton-based manager of advocacy and community services. “Our members support these kinds of programs,” he says, “and we’ve embarked on a number of similar initiatives in the past few years, including the ‘None for the Road’ campaign.” One similarity between the two campaigns, says Szarko, is delivery of the message that fatalities aren’t the only victims – “every one of those killed or injured has family and friends who are also deeply affected.”
To show their support for this year’s Red Ribbon campaign, Knox and Szarko are asking concerned citizens to stop by an AMA centre, Bank of Montreal branch or the MADD office to pick up a ribbon. Display of the ribbons – tied to a vehicle antenna or a backpack, or pinned to a jacket lapel – clearly demonstrates intolerance of impaired driving and also “serves to honour the memory of all the lives that have been lost,” says Knox. That would include Knox’s 16-year-old son, Michael, killed by an impaired driver in 2000.
Canada, drug users are disproportionately involved in fatal accidents.
- A Traffic Injury Research Foundation poll in 2002 found that close to 20 per cent of Canadian drivers had driven within two hours of taking a potentially impairing drug (over-the-counter, prescription or illegal).
- A study by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec determined that more than 30 per cent of fatal accidents in the province involved drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol.
The Ontario Drug Use Survey in 2003 found that close to 20 per cent of high school drivers in the province reported driving within one hour of using cannabis at least once in the preceding year.
Motorists convicted of impaired driving in Alberta must complete the Alberta Impaired Drivers Program (AIDP) to have their licence reinstated. This program is administered by AMA for Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation and aims to educate convicted drivers in a number of ways.
“Our fundamental goals,” says program manager Wendy Schilling, “are to reduce impaired driving and the harm caused by alcohol and other drug use.”
Some 4,000 individuals annually take the one-day first offender program called Planning Ahead. In addition to discussing the effects of alcohol and drugs on driving, participants examine their lifestyles, become more aware of the consequences of impaired driving, and develop an action plan to separate drinking and other drug use from driving.
Those convicted of a second offense must complete a two-day program facilitated by experts in addictions. Called IMPACT, this is a substance abuse assessment and pre-treatment program designed to help participants gain awareness of how alcohol and other drug use has affected their lives, their health, relationships, social life, job, and their legal and financial situation. They develop an action plan to change their lifestyles and a strategy to prevent relapse.
For many individuals, proceeding through AIDP is just a step on the path to dealing with alcohol and substance abuse issues. In better understanding their addictions, however, the hope is that these individuals will refrain from driving impaired – thereby keeping the roads safer for everyone.