Marijuana impairment is a growing concern for road safety

Drugged driver crackdown hinges on a testing device

7.3 per cent of injured drivers tested in B.C. trauma hospitals smoked marijuana prior to crash: study

Drug-impaired drivers who roam the roads mostly undetected are a top traffic safety priority for B.C. police chiefs.

Their association wants the federal government to approve a roadside testing device that would make it easier for officers to arrest stoned and otherwise drugged drivers.

“Whether it’s marijuana or prescription drugs, there are people that are driving high and for a large part it goes undetected because we don’t have a really good tester and we don’t have many drug recognition experts,” said Transit Police chief Neil Dubord, who chairs the traffic committee of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

Officers can arrest and usually issue a 24-hour suspension to a driver who is seriously drug-impaired.

But in less obvious cases, police have little recourse unless an officer is available who is highly trained in observing the signs of drug use.

There’s no device akin to a breathalyzer now in use in Canada to measure levels of cannabis or other drugs.

But Dubord said there are “amazing” mobile testing systems available in the U.S. that can detect 27 different drugs from a saliva swab.

He said federal approval of a roadside device is probably a couple of years away.

But he said it could allow not just criminal impairment charges but potentially the addition of drug use to B.C.’s system of automatic roadside suspensions and impoundments for drunk driving.

“With the proper tool, we may be able to get there as well,” Dubord said, adding accuracy of the testing technology would have to be assured.

The most recent study by researchers, published by the B.C. Medical Journal, found 5.4 per cent of drivers randomly checked in roadside surveys in 2012 had cannabis in their systems, followed by 4.1 per cent with cocaine and 1.7 per cent with amphetamines.

Separate testing of drivers hospitalized with trauma injuries following crashes found 12.6 per cent were positive for cannabis, with 7.3 per cent showing recent use.

“Cannabis slows reaction times, causes weaving, creates difficulty maintaining a constant speed, and predisposes to distraction,” Dr. Jeff Brubacher wrote this month in the BCMJ.

Brubacher said research so far suggests acute cannabis use roughly doubles the risk of crashing, while more research is needed to understand the crash risk from prescription drugs as well as stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines.

The ongoing political debate over potential marijuana reform in Canada is also a factor driving the police chiefs’ agenda.

“If there’s decriminalization or legalization or whatever ends up happening, we want to make sure we have the tools as well to be able to manage that successfully,” Dubord said. “Because at the end of the day we want people on the roads to be safe.”