Of Sudbury drivers charged with impaired driving in 2021, nearly half were impaired by drugs rather than alcohol, according to Greater Sudbury Police.
On Wednesday, the Greater Sudbury Police Services Board heard a presentation from Constables Dave Hamilton and Chris Clement of the traffic management unit on how local police deal with incidents of drug- and alcohol-impaired driving.
According to Clement, the number of drug-impaired driving evaluations and charges has increased as screening methods have improved.
"For alcohol impairment, we have the roadside alcohol screening device," said Clement. "It's not so easy for drug impairment."
In 2021, the number of drug evaluations performed by Greater Sudbury officers shot up to 166, a significant increase from 94 evaluations in 2020, 54 in 2019, and only 11 in 2018.
With more frequent evaluations, there has been a corresponding rise in charges laid against local drivers. In 2021, 158 of the 338 drivers charged were impaired by drugs, compared to 171 impaired by alcohol.
"For the purposes of drug-impaired driving enforcement, we consider a drug to be anything that impairs a person's ability to operate a motor vehicle," said Clement. "When we look at the drugs out there, it's a huge range from prescriptions drugs to illicit drugs, and even household products."
Currently, roadside testing devices like those used to screen for alcohol are only available to check for THC and cocaine in a driver's system.
Instead, officers are trained to conduct a Standard Field Sobriety test, where drivers are asked to complete a set of mental and physical tasks to check for impairment.
The three-step test includes a horizontal gaze nystagmus (to check eye tracking), a walk and turn, and a one-leg stand.
"It's essentially testing if they're impaired; it doesn't matter by what," said Clement. "It works for alcohol and it works for drugs. If they perform poorly on this test, the officer then has to make that determination. Was impairment observed? Is it cause by alcohol or drugs or a combination? And the determination by the officer determines which path they follow."
Around 40 local officers have been trained to perform the test, with at least one qualified officer in every platoon, according to Hamilton.
After an arrest is made, the driver is brought to a drug recognition expert, who performs a 12-step evaluation that includes an interview, and thorough examinations of the eyes, vital signs, muscle tone, and injection sites. The DRE then must provide their professional opinion to allow blood and urine samples to be collected for testing.
"The impaired driving investigation is one of the few circumstances where we can get blood from a person without a warrant," said Clement. "(The drug recognition experts) need to form that opinion in order to demand that bodily fluids sample. It is something that officers have to have training for because it is an invasive procedure."
These more streamlined, standardized testing routines have made officers more comfortable performing drug assessments, said Clement, which has led to the upward trend in charges seen locally and across the province.
"We are getting much better at detecting it, and arresting people and doing the testing," said Clement. "It's not just a substance use problem, it's also more effective enforcement. But I don't want to ignore the fact that the drug problem is getting worse."
Hamilton added that local call centres have been busier in the last few years with calls about possible impaired drivers. He said the enforcement has relied on their partnership with the community. "We need our community to support us, and then we support our community by catching these people."
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Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star