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Taking aim at drugged driving
Move over alcohol. Prescription drugs are increasingly becoming a source of impaired-driving incidents, says a Burnaby RCMP drug recognition expert (DRE).
Sgt. Paulena Gidda, Burnaby's officer in charge of general investigation who's also been a DRE for 15 years, estimated prescription drugs, often mixed with alcohol, is "easily 20 per cent of what we're dealing with. It's very significant."
Booze is still the major cause of impaired driving, but recognizing other causes of impairment and addressing them is a relatively new ability for police forces across Canada.
"Up until now we didn't have the tools to deal with it," she said.
That's because until July 2008, breathalyzer and other sobriety tests were voluntary. Not surprisingly, most suspected impaired drivers didn't volunteer.
After that date, it became mandatory, with criminal charges possible if people refused such tests.
That created the increased ability for DREs like Gidda to use their specialized training to determine whether people are on something other than alcohol.
The RCMP has 23 DREs in the Lower Mainland who are on call 24-7 and chosen to attend depending on who is closest to the location of incidents.
"I get called out at all hours of the day and night," Gidda said. "At the end of the day it's well worth it."
In one such case, Richmond RCMP had previously issued a woman two 24-hour driving suspensions. She was stopped a third time after she "put her cute convertible car under the back end of a bus," Gidda said.
The level of alcohol in the woman's system was limited but she still showed signs of excessive impairment. That's when Gidda was called out.
She was able to determine that the woman was on high doses of medication which, it turns out, she was washing down with alcoholic coolers.
As a result, the woman was charged with impaired driving due to drugs and had her licence taken away for two years because of the medication she was using.
In 2008, the year the new mandatory-testing law came into effect, RCMP conducted 283 drug enforcement evaluations across Canada, said Const. Brian Sampson, the RCMP's DRE coordinator for the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
By 2012, that had grown to 1,380 evaluations, of which 239 were in B.C. alone.
From Sampson's experience, most of his evaluations result in enforcement action for drug-impaired driving, often either an impaired-driving charge or a driving prohibition.
In Burnaby, so far this year (as of Sept. 11) there have been 14 incidents of impaired driving due to drugs which resulted in 24-hour driving prohibitions. That's compared to 56 24-hour roadside suspensions for impaired driving due to alcohol. Suspected impaired driving investigations number almost 400, said Burnaby RCMP Corp. Dave Reid, but statistics were not available as to the specific numbers of warnings, charges and suspensions issued for drugs compared to alcohol.
Gidda said she gets called out four to five times per month on average to perform drug recognition testing, sometimes more than once in a day, often when officers on scene see signs that a driver could be on something other than alcohol.
Training for DREs is extensive and often involves stints in the U.S. where Gidda has done testing on incoming prison inmates and even on volunteers off the street, who are assured they will not be charged if anything is found. Every two years DREs must go through a full re-evaluation process to ensure their skills are maintained at a high level.
At the core of their knowledge is understanding what different narcotics, drugs, prescription or otherwise, do to a person's body and ability to function.
With marijuana readily available and considered by many to be not as bad as narcotics such as heroin or cocaine, it's involved in 50 to 60 per cent of cases DREs deal with, estimated Gidda.
Pot gives its users a very relaxed feeling of invincibility combined with an impaired sense of perception related to distance, speed and time. It can affect a person's motor skills, so when operating a motor vehicle is involved, "you're looking at a disaster for some people."
The drug evaluation involves 12 tests on the suspect, starting with the breathalyzer for alcohol. There's an eye exam in which the person is asked to follow a moving pen with their eyes, with DREs searching for involuntary eye movements.
There are tests in which people are told to stand still with their eyes closed for 30 seconds or to walk and count. Certain drugs will speed up or slow down a person's central nervous system and in turn, their internal clock.
Their balance is checked by having them stand on one leg and muscle tone is evaluated. The pupils of their eyes are measured for size as well as how quickly or slowly they react to the brightness of a flashlight.
The tests also include the one often seen on TV, where they're asked to touch the tip of their finger to the tip of their nose while their eyes are closed and head is back.
"You tend not to know where your body parts are when you're under certain drugs," Gidda explained.
In the end, DREs are trying to determine if the person is under the influence of drugs, which are separated into seven categories. If so, police will demand a sample of urine, saliva or blood which is tested in a lab to confirm the drug category involved, as well as any other drug that may have been in their system.
Sometimes the drug impairment can sneak up on the suspect.
Gidda recalled one case in Surrey where she was called to an accident involving a cabinetmaker. The man had been working in a factory all day varnishing cabinets before getting into his van full of cans of varnishes.
She determined he was under the influence of inhalants, the varnishes, and charged him with impaired driving. If it had been 20 years ago, he would have just been involved in a motor vehicle accident but thanks to the work of DREs, such cases can also result in criminal charges.
Other than catching impaired drivers, the expertise of a DRE also has additional benefits and applications. Gidda noted that she has occasionally spotted a person in need of medical attention, due to a head injury for instance, through her eye tests. And she's even been called out to assist in a homicide case in which police couldn't tell if the suspect in a stabbing was intoxicated, on drugs or mentally ill.
Gidda was able to determine she was under the influence of a drug so "she couldn't say mental illness made her act the way she did. It was one less avenue to say, 'I didn't know what I was doing.'"
DREs can assist in keeping fellow police officers safe, making them aware of what sort of situation they might be walking into by explaining the potential state of mind and dangerous behaviour that could be present when a suspect is on certain drugs.
During high school graduation time, Gidda said she also speaks to groups of students to warn them of what drugs will do their bodies, and to groups of parents to let them know what to look out for if their kids come home with potential signs of drug use.
Then there are always the occasional cases where it turns out no drugs were involved at all.
After a man caused a five-vehicle accident in Surrey, Gidda was called out to examine him as officers at the scene were suspicious of the way he was walking despite no signs of alcohol use. He told Gidda he had no medical issues or physical disabilities, yet he couldn't perform a test where he had to stand on one leg.
When she asked him what the problem was, the man replied that he had no toes on that foot.
Turns out, he wore cowboy boots and kept paper stuffed in the space where his toes would normally be. Just before the crash, he slammed on the brakes but with no toes, the end of his boot simply flipped up. His vehicle didn't stop, and the vehicles collided, causing a chain reaction.
He was at fault, but not under the influence. Mystery solved.