Drivers Targets of Drug Tests!

Drivers Targets of Drug Tests!
Posted by FoM on August 18, 1999 at 14:03:06 PT
Paul Cherry, The Gazette
Source: Montreal Gazette
Quebec's automobile-insurance board is conducting an unprecedented study to see whether there's a link between drug use and motor-vehicle accidents. 
And while advocates agree it is important research that has rarely been done before, civil-liberties lawyer Julius Grey said yesterday the methods used to conduct the survey appear to be illegal. "It's the first of its kind in Canada," said Rock Tremblay, a spokesman for the Societe de l'Assurance Automobile du Quebec. It might be the first of its kind because it appears no legal mechanism exists that would permit it to be done. Since July 23, the SAAQ has set up random checkpoints in different parts of the province where drivers are asked by a police officer to pull over. A representative of the insurance board then asks the driver whether he or she wants to volunteer a saliva or urine sample. The driver can say no and simply drive away. Participants are informed that they will not be penalized for whatever their test reveals. However, if it is determined that a driver is heavily impaired, an SAAQ representative drives the person home. "We tell people that we're doing a study and that the information is kept confidential," Tremblay said. "No sanctions are levied against the participant." The SAAQ plans to continue the study until the end of autumn and will weigh the information against another study started in April in which the body of every driver killed in a traffic accident is being tested by the province for the presence of drugs or alcohol. The provincial government might use the findings as the basis to change legislation. On Aug. 9, an officer from the Sherbrooke regional police force stood on the main street in Lennoxville randomly selecting drivers and, using hand signals, directing them to a parking lot where they were interviewed by representatives of the SAAQ. In most cases, the drivers simply turned in to the parking lot without question. Others asked why but were told that the SAAQ testers would explain. Lawyer Grey said police are not empowered to stop people at random. "The idea of simply stopping people and asking them to pull over and do this as is bad as if the police were to stop people and ask, 'Would you like to contribute to a police charity?' "You are not allowed to do that, however laudable your purpose." However, Grey said it is unlikely anyone would challenge the practice because challenges of that nature are usually brought to court by people questioning the way in which evidence against them was obtained. "It has been clearly established that the police must have a reason connected with the way a person drives, and they can't stop people at random. It is not illegal for the police to ask someone they've pulled over to participate in an additional test." Grey said the situation is not comparable to a roadblock used to get impaired drivers off the road. Police at a roadblock will randomly stop cars but also interview the drivers and ask them to pull over only if they suspect they are impaired. Tremblay played down the police role in the study. "The police officers don't have a big role in this," he said. "They will stop people and ask them to pull over to a secondary road. They are just handling traffic. They don't have a coercive role." The study is being conducted in all regions of Quebec, including Montreal, but the SAAQ will issue no advance warning. "We want it to be as realistic as possible," Tremblay said. "We don't want people to be prepared." The SAAQ is conducting the study because while the impact of alcohol on driving is well known, little is known about the effects of both legal and illegal drugs. Last September, the SAAQ conducted a pilot study involving 243 people to test the methods of the current survey. Out of that sample 30 people were found to have consumed alcohol, 21 had consumed drugs and six were found to have used a combination of both. The study did not indicate whether people were legally impaired, and no distinction was made between whether the drugs were legal or illegal. Richard Garlick, director of communications for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, agreed there is precious little information available on the effect of drugs on a person's ability to drive. He said the SAAQ study will be significant because it has not been done before in Canada. He also said he was surprised the board had found a way to test drivers. "One of the areas that we don't know anything about is how many accidents are caused by cannabis in Canada," he said. "I believe there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that the figure is quite high." A section of the centre's just- released study - titled Canadian Profile: Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs - analyzes the few studies done on marijuana use and its effect on driving. It concluded that marijuana does impair driving behaviour. But, unlike the alcohol-impaired driver, the marijuana user realizes he is impaired and might compensate by slowing down. Pubdate: August 18, 1999
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