Camping, cottages and out of town travel are synonymous with summer long weekends. So, too, are the heightened risks that come with increased traffic and excessive drinking.
The sobering consequences of impaired driving are well known by law enforcement, which has long kept a close eye on roadways over holiday weekends.
In Yellowknife over the Labour Day Weekend, RCMP continued to do the same.
On Sunday, following two Checkstop programs conducted in as many days, Yellowknifer caught up with Const. Heather Cosenzo, a community policing and victim services constable with the Yellowknife detachment.
“We just want to make sure that we’re out and that we’re visible,” said Cosenzo, standing near a line of pylons dividing stopped vehicles into two lanes.
“Tonight we want to make sure that no one is drinking and driving and that everyone is safe in their car,” she added.
The Checkstop, lined with blinking RCMP trucks, was staged just before the turn onto Vee Lake Road – a busy thoroughfare for drivers heading to and from the city.
Cosenzo was joined by a handful of RCMP officers, including members trained to take breath samples, a collision reconstruction expert, a by-law officer, radar and laser speedometer operators and an officer trained to conduct a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST). Cpl. Terrence Dunphy with the Police Dog Services was also on site with his police dog Hoss – a new-to-Yellowknife German Shepherd on hand if officers suspect there’s drugs inside a vehicle.
Cosenzo explained that while impaired driving is the focus of stops like these, officers are keeping an eye out for than just slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.
“Registration, insurance, that driver’s licences are up to date; that the occupants are safe and fully secured. Tail lights, obscured license plates. That kind of thing,” said Cosenzo.
Usually, minor infractions can be resolved with warnings, said Cosenzo. But not for drunk driving.
If there is “reasonable” suspicion that a driver is impaired by alcohol, an officer can demand a breath sample from an screening device.
A roadside sample is then taken. If a driver blows within the “warn” range – 50-80 milligrams of alcohol in one hundred milliliters of blood – a 24-hour suspension can be issued. Drivers that fail, or blow over the legal limit of 80 milligrams, are arrested for impaired driving.
As for police testing methods for drug-impaired drivers – which could soon see chances with marijuana’s legalization in some 40 days – Yellowknife RCMP currently rely on SFSTs. Police can demand drivers submit to a roadside evaluation, which requires drivers to go through a series of those tests.
If the driver fails those tests, that’s when Cosenzo calls a trained Drug Recognition Evaluator to conduct further testing.
But only certain officers are trained evaluators, and they’re not always available when needed, added Cosenzo.
Methods and tools for testing pot impairment will likely change – it’s a matter of when.
Law enforcement agencies across the country could soon be equipped with the Draeger DrugTest 5000, a device, recently approved by the feds, which tests saliva for levels of THC, pot’s active ingredient. But questions are being raised about how reliable the device is, as it can’t evaluate a person’s level of impairment the same way a blood-alcohol test does. Plus, it’s designed to work in temperatures far warmer than in the North.
Yellowknife RCMP have not yet received the device and it’s unclear when they will.
Asked whether drivers could expect to see more check stops come legalization, Cosenzo said she feels the force already carries out a lot of safety campaigns and initiatives.
Last holiday season, Yellowknife RCMP partnered with Students Against Drunk Driving, stopping around 500 cars over two nights while handing out candy canes.
“It’s a lot about education and not just enforcement,” said Cosenzo.
While the Checkstop focused on traffic outside of the city’s core, impaired driving along the streets of Yellowknife is also a priority for police. That became clear when Yellowknifer’s ride along ended with officers scouring the downtown for a suspected drunk driver who fled his vehicle – and police – on foot.
No tickets were handed out during Sunday’s Checkstop, but some motorists were warned to keep their documents with them at all times.