Recognizing impaired drivers

·5 min read

There’s nothing wrong with an adult having a few tokes, a few drinks or maybe a THC-infused gummy bear.

That is, until the person who is a little too high gets behind the wheel.

Const. Josh Flikweert, a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) with the Chatham-Kent Police Service said deciding to drive while impaired can have catastrophic consequences.

“It’s a choice you make,” the veteran officer explained in an interview with The Chatham Voice. “Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege."

While serving as a patrol officer, the 18-year CKPS veteran developed a special interest in impaired driving. Flikweert decided to deepen his knowledge of the issue and trained in the United States to become the second DRE on the C-K police team.

Now he’s the officer who determines if a suspected impaired driver is truly impaired and has to figure out by what.

While the signs of too much alcohol are obvious and a breath sample on an Intoxilyzer machine quickly determines if a suspect is impaired, figuring out if a driver is impaired by drugs, is a different challenge.

Flikweert said the process begins when an officer engages with a citizen, perhaps after pulling them over.

“They (the police) recognize something is off with the person, but they really don’t know what it is,” he added.

But thanks to pro-action, many of Chatham-Kent’s officers are now trained in conducting Standard Field Sobriety Tests of suspected impaired drivers at the roadside.

The assessment includes eye movements, standing on one leg and walking the line.

If the motorist fails, they are transported to the police station where the DRE puts them through a battery of tests.

The suspect’s blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and pupil size are all checked, because as Flikweert explained, “different drugs do different things.”

Urine samples are also taken which are sent to Toronto for further analysis.

Then it's up to the DRE to pinpoint what substance the driver is impaired by. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, there are seven categories of drug impairment, ranging from depressants to narcotic analgesics.

“It’s like a puzzle,” Flikweert said of the process. “I get all these little pieces and clues and have to put them together.”

According to Flikweert, there’s rarely a drug-impaired driver that uses just one drug. Most users engage in “poly-drug use,” he said, with the big ones in Chatham-Kent being fentanyl and methamphetamine to a lesser extent.

According to 2019 statistics from MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, impaired driving is a major concern. The latest data from 2019 shows an average of 10 federal criminal charges and provincial short-term suspensions for alcohol or drug-impaired driving are laid every hour in Canada.

Some public health agencies say substance abuse rose exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic – as people tried to cope – but there are no official studies to support the claim.

However, there’s plethora of anecdotal evidence. Daily occurrence reports from police agencies across the nation detail the routine and sometimes outrageous arrests of impaired driving suspects.

In Chatham-Kent officers are keeping a watchful eye.

Statistics released by the CKPS earlier this year show officers conducted 38 standard field sobriety tests at the roadside in 2021, an increase of 325 per cent over 2020.

Officers issued four three-day suspensions and made 16 impaired driving arrests, including one refusal.

Drug recognition experts were used on 46 occasions in 2021, an increase of 283 per cent over the previous year.

While that might seem like a huge jump,

Flikweert said it’s difficult to gauge if more people are driving impaired. He said the increase may be the result of having nearly a third of Chatham-Kent’s officers trained in the standard field sobriety test protocol, meaning more eyes are trained to spot signs of impairment.

A total of 41 officers have taken the SFST training, Flikweert explained, crediting the increase in testing to the frontline officers that are trained.

“As a police service, we’ve determined we want to make Chatham-Kent the safest community in Ontario,” he said, adding education and prevention of impaired driving is a major priority for Chatham-Kent police.

It’s important work. In 2021, two out of the 10 fatal crashes were associated with impaired drivers.

“These collisions can alter lives forever,” Flikweert said, adding it’s "heartbreaking" when officers have to inform families of victims that they’ve lost a loved one to impaired driving.

But besides putting others at risk, getting charged with impaired driving is an expensive proposition and can turn an enchanted evening into an expensive nightmare.

Flikweert said the first consequence is an immediate 90-day license suspension. Next, the vehicle is towed and impounded for at least seven days.

The alleged impaired driver is then faced with figure out the logistics of life without a car, such as getting to work and buying groceries. When the driver does finally retrieve their vehicle as they await trial, they must pay the Ontario government a fee to reinstate their license.

This all happens prior to conviction, which is another matter entirely.

A first impaired driving offence reaps a fine of $1,000 to $2,000. It also carries a criminal record, something that can affect the future of the person who is convicted.

Flikweert said some people are allowed to return to the road through the use of an ignition interlock breath screening device on their car.

The machines are installed at the owner's expense and have to be maintained on a regular basis – again at the owner’s expense.

Flikweert, who has been part of the CKPS Traffic Management Unit for three years, said educating more officers in the recognition of impaired driving is a goal for the department.

Getting more officers on board will help, Flikweert said. Later this year, more CKPS officers will take the SFST training.

“We’re getting way more officers trained on how to recognize those that are impaired by drugs and take action before it’s too late,” Flikweert said.

“Driving while impaired is a wilful and cognizant decision,” he added. “It’s a decision that in a split second can reverberate for decades to come.”

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting