Mandatory Alcohol Screening [Policy Brief]
Impaired driving has a devastating impact on people’s lives. It also results in significant costs to society. To help reduce the negative impact of impaired driving, there are a number of laws, policies and regulations in place. The federal government sets out impaired driving criminal offences for Canada through the Criminal Code. Provinces and territories have authority to make further restrictions and additions to these laws within their own regions.
CCSA has published a number of briefs to help understand the policies set out by governments and the tools used by law enforcement to address impaired driving.
Cannabis is a psychoactive substance that impairs an individual’s judgment and ability to react. It also increases their chances of being involved in a serious collision if they decide to drive. To design laws and penalties, screening and testing measures for cannabis, researchers, policy makers and road safety professionals examined the known impacts of cannabis on driving ability. This research has also informed how to detect cannabis-impaired drivers and educate the public on the risks of cannabis-impaired driving. CCSA and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction collaborated to produce Cannabis and Driving: Questions and Answers for Policymaking, which outlines current knowledge about cannabis and driving, and the latest developments in its regulation.
The briefing answers 15 questions for policy makers grouped in four areas:
On December 18, 2018, the Government of Canada introduced mandatory alcohol screening (MAS) for drivers. This law allows police officers to demand a breath sample from drivers without having reasonable suspicion that the driver has consumed alcohol. A number of studies have shown that MAS, when combined with other strategies, is effective in reducing alcohol-impaired driving. Although there are concerns about potential violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, MAS has the potential to make a positive impact on impaired driving.
Given the newness of this law and the recent legalization of cannabis in the months before implementing MAS, some Canadians might not be aware of this new method to address alcohol-impaired driving.
For decades, law enforcement has had the authority to use approved alcohol screening devices to check drivers for levels of blood alcohol concentration. These devices use breath to test for the presence and concentration levels of alcohol. They are quick, easy to use and give an indication of the driver’s level of impairment. They also provide the police officer with information to decide if further action is necessary.
To help reduce drug-impaired driving, especially with the legalization of non-medical cannabis, the Government of Canada passed legislation that allows the use of oral fluid (i.e., saliva) drug screening equipment that can test for the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cocaine and methamphetamines. When used with the Standardized Field Sobriety Test — a battery of three tests performed during a traffic stop to determine if a driver is impaired — and the Drug Evaluation and Classification program, screening devices can help to reduce the number of drug-impaired drivers.
The Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) program was added to the Criminal Code of Canada in 2008 to help enforce drug-impaired driving legislation. These amendments gave law enforcement the authority to demand that a driver suspected of drug-impaired driving submit to an evaluation by a Drug Recognition Evaluator, an officer trained and certified to administer the DEC protocol. This 12-step procedure is widely used across the United States and Canada. It provides a scientifically valid, reliable evaluation of impairment.
There are two types of laws to address impaired driving. One is based on behavioural assessments of drivers, such as an evaluation by a Drug Recognition Evaluator, and the other is when the concentration of alcohol or drugs in the body is above a certain specified or “per se” threshold. Per se laws are a quicker and more efficient method to address impairment because they eliminate the requirement to prove a driver was impaired. Instead, they assume impairment when concentration levels are above set thresholds (e.g., blood alcohol concentrations higher than 80 mg/dL or THC above 5 ng/mL).
Per se thresholds can be set at different levels depending on the type of substance (e.g., any detectable amount of cocaine is illegal) or for certain groups of people (e.g., zero for all substances for young and novice drivers). They can also be set for certain combinations of substances (e.g., 2.5 ng/mL THC or more combined with a blood alcohol concentration of .05 or more). Setting limits for drugs is more complicated than for alcohol, but there is sufficient evidence to support the implementation of per se laws for some substances.
The federal government sets the ”per se” thresholds for alcohol- and drug-impaired driving criminal offences. However, some argue that lower limits would help further reduce fatalities and injuries. Rather than change the Criminal Code, many provinces and territories have chosen to enact legislation that places additional restrictions or punishment on drivers. These are administrative sanctions. For example, the majority of jurisdictions suspend a driver’s licence for a defined number of days and issue fines if the driver has a blood alcohol concentration at or above .05. They can also impound vehicles or require participation in treatment programs, among other sanctions. All Canadian jurisdictions have zero tolerance policies for alcohol or drugs for novice drivers.