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Three RCMP officers carry out traffic checks.

Refresher training helps officers get impaired drivers off the road

A pair of RCMP officers in B.C. have made it their mission to provide refresher training to ensure their colleagues are well prepared to detect and catch impaired drivers. Credit: RCMP


Four Canadians are killed and 175 are injured daily in impairment-related crashes. Two RCMP officers in British Columbia have been sharing their expertise working on impaired driving to help colleagues detect and catch these drivers.

"You're not going to catch an impaired driver every night," says Cst. Mike Zwicker, who took initiative and organized drug-and alcohol-impaired training for officers throughout the province with his colleague Cst. John Taylor.

"Impaired driving investigations are complex and if officers are not putting their training to work often, we want to help them keep those skills up to date."

Both officers, who most recently worked together at West Shore detachment on Vancouver Island, say they're passionate about catching impaired drivers and providing the refresher training whenever they can. Between them, Zwicker and Taylor have investigated more than 500 impaired driving cases.

"The victims of impaired driving are the innocents, and they need our help and protection," adds Taylor.

Signs of impairment

In basic training, RCMP cadets are taught to investigate drug and alcohol-related collisions, recognize the signs of impairment and respond to calls for service involving an impaired driver.

"Part of the officer's job is to get impaired drivers off our roads," says Sgt. Brian Sampson, who leads the BC Highway Patrol's Integrated Impaired Driving Unit. "That means being aware of all the details in those investigations, and the training is an important part of making sure the roads are safe." Officers most often encounter impaired drivers during roadside checks, after pulling a driver over, or at an accident scene.

Taylor says the refresher training is designed to remind officers of the many signs that impaired drivers can display, such as the smell of alcohol or drugs, trouble balancing, or simply acting out of the ordinary — driving very slowly, making exceptionally wide turns and driving with the window down in cold weather.

"Knowing the symptoms can give the investigator the tools to better identify impaired drivers," he says. "They can be subtle, or multiple symptoms can present. But, our investigators are trained to identify those that matter and determine if an impaired investigation should be pursued."

Knowing the law

When a police officer suspects a driver is impaired by alcohol or drugs, they will conduct a series of assessments known as the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. They include the walk-and-turn test and the one-leg-stand test, which Taylor and Zwicker revisit in their training.

They also review the impaired driving laws during the sessions.

The Criminal Code was updated in 2018 to include new criminal offences when drivers are over a prohibited blood-drug concentration for certain substances including THC and cocaine. The law allows police officers who suspect a driver of being impaired by drugs, to obtain a blood or saliva sample for testing.

"Case law continues to evolve and make minor changes in how we conduct the investigations," says Taylor. "Sometimes a judge's decision will mean that we need to do certain things differently. We are trying to provide the most up-to-date information and emphasize what specific changes were made."

Advice for officers

Taylor always reminds his colleagues to document everything. "As with most criminal investigations, the devil is in the details," he says. He adds that if the investigation is not clearly documented, the prosecution may choose not to proceed with charges.

"Some of the evidence, and grounds for the police to believe the person is impaired, come from our observations," says Taylor. "If we don't document it and explain it well, it is hard for the courts to see it."

Sampson, of B.C.'s Integrated Impaired Driving Unit, says officers can be called to testify in court and must be prepared for being questioned by attorneys who want to defend their clients. "In court, we have to be prepared, pay attention to details and paint a picture for the court that is beyond refute so we can have a successful outcome," says Sampson.

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