#272 That’ more than just whiskey in the jar-o : Impaired Driving

It’s 4:20. Where has your mind just gone? Possibly down the rabbit hole if you’re in the habit of drugging and driving. Alarming statistics suggest many people hit the pipe and the road on the same trip.

It’s a familiar scenario—especially here in Lotusland. You’re following a car that has all the windows open, and a familiar musty, slightly sickly smell greets your nostrils. You know straightaway what it is and where it’s coming from. The driver is toking. Probably can’t enjoy a bong at home or on the street, so they head for their mobile sanctuary and light up.
I’ve got nothing against marijuana use, as long as they don’t make it compulsory. If I had my druthers, all drugs would be legalized and their distribution controlled so we could benefit from the associated revenues instead of the profits going to the bad guys. But that’s not a topic for this column.
The concern is, of course, that marijuana’s principal active component, THC, affects the brain and central nervous system in a way that causes, according to Health Canada, “impaired reaction time, coordination and motor skills.” Coincidentally, these are some of the critical faculties required for driving a car.
Well, okay, but what’s wrong with the odd driver enjoying an occasional doobie in the driving seat? The problem is the scale of illegal drug use while driving, revealed in a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. CCSA reported that drug use and driving get mixed a lot more often than we might think. Working with police, researchers collected voluntary breath and saliva samples from 2,840 drivers in BC. They found that, while 9.9 per cent had been drinking, 7.7 per cent tested positive for drugs. Marijuana and cocaine were the drugs most commonly found.
The researchers also examined 14,000 driver fatalities and found that 33 per cent tested positive for drugs while 37 per cent were positive for alcohol. So, in the worst case, almost twice as many drivers are under the influence of consciousness altering chemicals than previously thought. There’s no mention in the CCSA’s media release as to whether the researchers looked into any motorcycle fatalities, but as alcohol is a major factor in single-vehicle motorcycle crashes, it’s reasonable to assume drugs may be a factor as well—though toking while wearing a full-face helmet might present some logistical problems.
Another factor the CCSA research program uncovered was that, while drunk driving is known to peak at night, positive drug tests were more evenly distributed around the clock. So staying off the road in the evenings to avoid getting hit by a drunk driver doesn’t help you evade the dopers.
My concern, of course, is that dopey drivers are just one more motorcycling hazard, and these seem to keep piling up. Add drugged drivers to those drunk, distracted and just plain dangerously incompetent, and it’s starting to look like the risks might outweigh the benefits. Maybe I’m not paranoid after all, and they really are out to get me.
The challenge is that, while all police cruisers are presumably equipped with alcohol breath test equipment, there are only 600 police officers across the whole of Canada trained in detecting drug impairment, says CCSA. There is no objective drug impairment test operable in the field other than the old-fashioned “walk the line” sobriety test.
Police officers have to transport a suspected drug DWI to the cop shop for testing by a Drug Recognition Expert. Even then, it’s the DRE who makes a subjective assessment of the level of impairment, and I’m certain a competent defence lawyer could drive a metaphorical bus through a charge based on one expert opinion.
The danger is that drug impairment behind the wheel could get swept under the carpet like driver distraction, because it’s more difficult to measure and quantify than alcohol. But ease of measurement shouldn’t dictate what crimes get effectively prosecuted and which ones don’t. Cherry picking which laws to enforce and which ones not to is a step into dangerous territory.
Presumably it took some time and money to develop alcohol breath test technology to the state where it’s accurate enough to impose a conviction (or “administrative sanctions”) in the field. The same urgency should apply to in-the-field drug testing. It would help if a credible advocacy group got behind this, too, but I guess Mothers Against Drunk, Drugged and Distracted drivers doesn’t quite have the same ring.
I think it’s self-evident that reducing the number of drug-impaired drivers on the road would be a Good Thing. That requires a change in the way we think about drugs and driving as well as legislation. The mechanics of social change are well understood, and usually combine a carrot and a stick—legislation combined with an information campaign—advertising to you and me.
A good example is the mandating of seatbelt use in cars. After this was legislated, it took at least a decade before the majority became committed to always wearing one, spurred by posters and TV advertising showing graphic images of crash victims and employing catchy straplines. In the UK it was “clunk, click, every trip.” In Washington State, it’s “click it or ticket.” PEI at one time had “seat belts save” on its licence plates. Admittedly there will always be a small minority that will never wear a seatbelt, regardless of the penalties, but the program has achieved its general goals—even if it took a generation!
Reducing drunk driving, speeding and red light offences are now the objectives of social change efforts—but when did you see or hear anything about drugs and driving? And the issues of the impact of prescription drugs, or the cumulative effects of mixing drugs and alcohol aren’t even on the radar.
So we’re a long way from taking drug-addled drivers off the road. But let’s hope the CCSA’s research kicks the legislative and enforcement branches into action, or at least prompts some discussion. I plan to carry on riding on the street, and I don’t want to die doing it.