New impaired driving laws in Manitoba should focus on drug use: MADD

New impaired driving rules in Manitoba target alcohol use, but the focus should shift to drug-impaired driving, MADD Canada representatives say.

Toronto expert says 'quite a few people' believe they can still smoke cannabis and drive

Robert Mann is studying marijuana use and driving. He said he’s hoping to determine marijuana impairment levels similar to blood alcohol levels used to enforce drinking-and-driving laws. (Submitted)

It's been a little over five years since Melody Bodnarchuk's 22-year-old nephew was killed by a drunk driver. Nov. 10, 2010 will replay in her memory for life, she said.

"It's carnage in your family when this happens. It's devastating," the president of MADD Canada's Winnipeg chapter said.

"Nobody is ever the same again. I've heard from my friends, 'Where did Melody go?' I'm a totally different person."

The Manitoba government announced new impaired driving rules on Monday. The legislation extends licence suspensions and puts mandatory interlock systems that require a breath sample to start a vehicle into all convicted impaired drivers' cars.

The focus on drinking should be shifted to drug use, some say. 

"MADD is very concerned about drug-impaired driving," Bodnarchuk said. "It is hugely important — and I can't stress that enough — that we get onto what is causing death and injury on the road, and what is causing death and injury is impairment. It's not simply by alcohol, although that remains a huge problem. It is also by drug use."

Robert Mann is studying marijuana use and driving.

Robert Mann, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, has been studying impaired driving for years. His latest project tests young drivers' abilities (both sober after a placebo and high from marijuana) with a driving simulator. The goal, he said, is to show the effects of smoking up before going out for a drive.

"I think it's true that there are quite a few people who believe you can still smoke cannabis and drive. That's very concerning to me," he said. "Our [previous] data tell us if you're smoking and driving, depending on how much you're smoking, you could be at the same kind of risk you'd be at if you were drinking and driving."

But he said youth might not be getting this message.

"We first, in 2001, had students surveyed in Ontario from grades 7 to 12," he said.

"To our surprise, more students drove after using cannabis than drove after drinking. That difference has remained and has been seen across the country and parts of the United States as well."

Results won't be out until spring, but Dr. Mann said ultimately he hopes he'll be able to identify how much marijuana is too much to drive. Finding those specific levels, he said, might be able to give policy-makers enough information to create guidelines similar to those for blood alcohol levels.

That would help those responsible for enforcement, a Winnipeg police officer said.

"I think everyone would agree that drinking and driving has been hammered into our heads from a very early age," said Winnipeg Police Service Const. Stephane Fontaine, the impaired driving countermeasures co-ordinator for the central traffic unit.

"There hasn't been as much education for the general public on drug-impaired driving."

Education needed

When a driver is first pulled over, officers are more concerned about whether a person is impaired in general, Fontaine said; figuring out which drug caused the impairment comes later. And while there are specific tools police can use to determine impairment, more could be done to teach people about drug-impaired driving, Fontaine said.

"There's a lot more background in alcohol-impaired driving enforcement," he said.

"[Information on drug-impaired drivers] is there and it's happening, but I think, especially with all this talk about legalizing marijuana and the controversy that surrounds that idea, we'll likely be talking more."

While there are some awareness campaigns and messages out there, public perception still needs a bit of tweaking, Fontaine said.

"Does marijuana impair your ability to operate a motor vehicle? Absolutely," he said.

"And when it does and that's when you decide to drive, that's when you become dangerous to everyone on the roads."

Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh said efforts to combat drinking and driving have been effective, and now the province has to turn attention to marijuana and driving.

"I think we can strengthen that roadside consequences for drug impaired driving in Manitoba. It's just a matter of determining which ones are most effective.

"If we're going to legalize marijuana, we have to have a much swifter and certain test roadside and that's why moving to an oral fluid allowance I the federal laws is going to be very important."

While there are some tests and tools for officers to determine whether a driver is impaired, Bodnarchuk said, she and the rest of MADD Canada are calling for a standard test.

"There's a lot more to be done. The technology to conduct simple, inexpensive roadside fluid or saliva tests to detect drugs, similar to the way a breathalyzer device works, is already available," she said.

"We all have our rights. But none of us have the right to drive impaired and all of us have the right to expect not to be hurt or killed by somebody who's impaired."


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