British Columbia

New testing device could help spot drug-impaired drivers

A new portable testing device currently under development detects eye movements affected by drugs and alcohol, and it could help law enforcement determine if a driver is impaired.

The device, currently under development, detects eye movements affected by drugs and alcohol

Ehsan Daneshi wears the drug impairment screening device he and a group of researchers are developing. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The researchers behind a new portable drug-and-alcohol testing device hope that, once ready, their product could help police get drug-impaired drivers off the road.

It's called the Ophthalight and it's being developed by a group including Ehsan Daneshi, a PhD student in computational neuroscience at Simon Fraser University.

"We are in the very early stage of developing this device for law enforcement and initial feedback from a couple of contacts we have over there was very positive," he said, explaining the device was initially intended for medical purposes, but they realized it could be marketed to law enforcement agencies.

The device fits over a suspect driver's face like goggles. Daneshi wouldn't say much about exactly how it works, citing intellectual property concerns, but essentially there's a camera pointed at each eye and a series of lights around the lenses stimulates a reaction in the eye, which is recorded and analysed.

Little was shared about exactly how the device works, but a series of lights are mounted around two cameras which face a person's eyes. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The idea is that the device will replace the typical tests administered by police officers with a flashlight — just a part of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) used in British Columbia.

"The problem is the flashlight test is quite subjective. There's lots of factors, environmental and conditional factors that affect the validity of the results," said Daneshi.

"When a driver goes to court, the lawyer shows up and says, 'the police officer wasn't experienced enough,' or 'the environment for performing the test wasn't standard.' Using this technology, no matter how trained the police officer is, they can get very accurate and objective results."

Legal issues

According to Vancouver defence lawyer Kyla Lee, who specializes in impaired driving cases, it's common that an infraction will be challenged based on an officer's performance.

"It's a frequent issue that arises, and generally speaking, if you can undermine the officer's performance or reliance on a roadside test, it has very positive results for the outcome of the case as a whole," she said.

Vancouver defence lawyer Kyla Lee, who specializes in impaired driving cases, doubts the Ophthalight device will hold up to legal challenges. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

But Lee is quick to dismiss the potential of the screening device.

"I don't think it's something that we'll ever see as part of our legal system," she said. 

"There's lots of reasons why I don't think it will be accessible to officers at the roadside. In part, it doesn't fulfill a need that we have. We have tools that the officers have been trained on for detecting impaired drivers, both for alcohol and the standardized sobriety tests for drugs."

The SFST involves the walk and turn test, the balance test and the flashlight test, which is called the horizontal gaze nystagmus test.

The Ophthalight would only replace the horizontal gaze nystagmus test part of that, and run a series of other eye tests to determine if there was anything about the eye movement indicating the presence of marijuana, cocaine, LSD and other drugs in a person's body.

Not measuring amount of drugs

"Ultimately, it's a screening device, but if they think a driver is suspicious, they ask the driver to do a blood test, which is the ultimate way of saying somebody has consumed alcohol or other drugs," said Daneshi.

"We are not measuring alcohol or THC levels in blood, but we're measuring the function of eyes as an important segment of the human nervous system."

PhD. student Ehsan Daneshi is vice president of business development at Ophthalight Digital Solutions. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Lee casts doubt on how much the Ophthalight team had familiarized itself with the legal aspects of impaired driving.

"Most of the time when people go back to the detachment for drug testing, they take urine samples. It's very rare that they take blood," she said. 

"The steps that police have to go through to get blood are so significant and so difficult, so for this company to say, 'yeah, well then you can just go get blood,' our justice system does not allow you just to take somebody's blood on the basis of an eye test."

Recorded information

Daneshi highlighted the recorded photos and charts as one of the key reasons his device would support a case against an impaired driver in court. But Lee questioned the constitutionality of recording information about a suspect without a warrant.

"It collects information about you, like, it's taking pictures and it's providing digital readouts and that type of information. In order for the police to have access for that, they need reasonable suspicion that you have something in your body, so I can't see this ever being something that would be constitutionally permissible," she said.

B.C.'s minister of public safety, Mike Morris, declined an interview with CBC, but his ministry provided an emailed statement that said, in part, there were about 2,600 24-hour prohibitions issued for drug-impaired driving in 2015.

It went on to say that police across the country are testing three saliva-based roadside screening devices for drug impairment.

"It's encouraging to see that entrepreneurs and academics are pursuing studies and knowledge gathering in this important aspect of public safety," the statement read.

Daneshi said he's in the very early stages of clinical trials for his device. He said the current cost for medical customers is about $4,500, but it would be less for law enforcement. He expects the product to be ready sometime in 2018.

But Lee doubts the Ophthalight will ever find its way into police officers' hands.

"So far they haven't released any information about how they work, about how they're making these determinations.

All of that has to come out and I can guarantee you that defence lawyers are going to do their jobs and they're going to pick it apart and they're going to question its functioning, just like we do with breathalyzers, just like we do with roadside tests," she said.

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