Report pans laws on drug-impaired driving

New measures given to police a few years ago to go after drug-impaired drivers have turned out to be “cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive” and vulnerable to court challenges, according to a new report by the advocacy group MADD Canada.

The report obtained by Postmedia News also says even though hundreds of police officers across the country have been trained in techniques for evaluating drivers suspected of drug impairment, the law remains “grossly underenforced.”

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Thursday the government looks forward to reviewing the report.

“Our Conservative government takes impaired driving very seriously. This is why we took action to protect the lives of innocent Canadians from those who drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” Julie Di Mambro said. “We increased the penalties for impaired driving while giving police better tools to detect and investigate drugand alcohol-impaired driving.”

In a recent interview, senior RCMP officials told Postmedia News that the current approach to combating drug-impaired driving has seen a “lot of success” and that they plan to ramp up training in the coming year.

In 2008, a change to the Criminal Code gave police new powers to demand physical co-ordination tests, also known as field sobriety tests, and drug evaluations from drivers they suspected of being impaired by drugs.

But the MADD report, prepared by Western University law professors Robert Solomon and Erika Chamberlain, says even though about 800 officers in Canada have undergone training to become certified Drug Recognition Evaluators, the number of people who have been charged with drug-impaired driving remains small.

In 2010, according to the report, 915 people were charged with drug-impaired driving nationwide, representing 1.4 per cent of the total number of impaireddriving charges laid.

“Even if drug-impaired driving charges tripled, it would still constitute less than 5 per cent of the total impaired driving charges,” the report states.

The authors also point out that there is no way to know how many drivers charged with drug impairment were convicted. Statistics Canada does not track that information.

There have been several cases in which judges have acquitted drivers, raising questions about the effectiveness of current law enforcement techniques, critics say.

Last month, a judge in Saskatchewan acquitted a driver who admitted using marijuana before getting behind the wheel and who bungled a number of physical co-ordination tests.

The judge said that even though evidence presented in court showed that the accused had used marijuana before being stopped and that a urine test later confirmed marijuana in her system, police and prosecutors failed to convince him that “at the time she was driving, her ability operate a motor vehicle was impaired by marijuana.”

“This case and others that adopt a similar approach do not augur well for drug-impaired driving prosecutions,” the MADD report states.

The report recommends that one way to bring greater clarity to the law would be for the government to adopt new drugintake or “per se” limits for common illicit drugs, similar to the 0.08 blood alcohol limit.

The authors suggest that authorities consider a system of random roadside saliva testing.

Police conduct a roadside check in this file photo.
Photograph by: Archive, Calgary Herald