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Exploring the Role of Technology in Canadian DUI Enforcement and Prevention

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The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released draft rulemaking that might require auto manufacturers to install advanced impaired driving prevention technology in all new vehicles. Similar to the ignition interlock systems that convicted DUI offenders in Ontario must use after the end of their license suspension, the technology would prevent cars from starting if they sense alcohol on the driver’s breath or skin. MADD Canada encourages the Canadian government to follow the U.S. lead by enacting similar legislation. In response, Transport Canada put out a statement saying it would consider such regulatory initiatives on anti-impaired driving technology “at some point in the future as the technology matures.”

This was a smart move, as even the NHTSA acknowledges that its proposed rulemaking will only advance once the agency is assured the technology works. As noted by the NHTSA administrator, with one billion daily drives in the U.S., a 99.9% accuracy rate leaves room for a million false positives. And a false positive could prevent someone from getting to the hospital in an emergency.

Police and government regulators have long turned to technology to help prevent criminal activity and prevent crime. And They have been seeking a technological edge in their battle against impaired driving since at least the 1920s. The Greater Toronto Area criminal defence lawyers of Mass Tsang are familiar with the technology police use to detect impaired drivers and make DUI arrests. So, let’s take a closer look at this technology to explore its effectiveness and limitations.

The Evolution of the Breathalyzer

While Canada passed its first intoxicated driving law in 1921, there was no reliable way to determine a driver’s level of intoxication. Thus, proving the offence in court was often an unreliable subjective exercise that was just as likely to gain an acquittal as a guilty finding. American police and courts faced the same problem, and several Americans independently began looking for a solution. The following timeline shows how the answer was slow to evolve:

  • 1927 — Los Angeles researcher Dr. Emil Bogen and Chicago scientist W.D. McNally independently determined how to test breath for blood alcohol content (BAC). Both used chemical reactions to determine BAC in the breath, and McNally developed a working device that was profiled in a science magazine as the “breath analyzer.” However, police never adopted the methodologies and McNally’s working device.
  • 1933 — the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. led to a dramatic annual increase in drunk driving fatalities and injuries.
  • 1938 — Indiana State Police conducted the first real-world testing of a breath testing machine — the “Drunkometer” — developed by biochemist Dr. Rolla N. Harger.
  • Early 1940s — Numerous police departments around the country were using the Drunkometer, as well as similar devices — the “Alcometer” and “Intoximeter” — developed by other researchers. These early breathalyzers all relied on determining the ratio of carbon dioxide and alcohol in the breath and comparing it with pre-mixed alcohol solutions. A formula then translated the equivalent measurement in the blood.
  • 1953 — Indiana State Police Captain Robert Frank Borkenstein developed and trademarked the breathalyzer, which uses chemical oxidation and photometry to determine BAC.
  • 1954 — Ontario Police start testing the breathalyzer.
  • 1969 — Canada enacted the law making it an offence to drive with over 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

The principles and mechanism of Borkenstein’s original breathalyzer remain in use in breathalyzers used by police worldwide today, though the photometry and oxidation sensing technology has experienced significant advancements. The approved screening devices that police use for roadside testing are essentially mini breathalyzers. However, because they cannot be calibrated as effectively as standard breathalyzers, their readings cannot be used as evidence to prove impaired driving.

Technology as a Preventative Measure for Impaired Driving

The worldwide adoption of ignition interlock devices to prevent drivers who’ve been drinking from starting their vehicles perhaps represents the most significant use of technology to prevent impaired driving. Their effectiveness isn’t so much a measure of the technology but more a factor related to the high recidivism rate among DUI offenders. By preventing convicted DUI offenders from driving, these devices have helped cut the recidivism rate .

Ignition Interlock devices utilize a fuel cell sensor to detect the presence of alcohol on a driver’s breath. The ignitions of vehicles installed with the device cannot start until a breath sample has been blown into the sensor. If the device detects BAC levels above a specific limit — 0.002 in Ontario — it will prevent the driver from starting the vehicle. These devices can also require drivers to provide random breath samples while in transit. Failure to provide one, or subsequently exceeding the BAC limit, will activate an alarm system wired into the car that will cause the vehicle’s lights to flash and horn to honk until the driver turns off the ignition.

While the initial development of ignition interlock devices began in the 1980s, their commercialization and adoption by courts as a recidivism preventative tool didn’t start until the 1990s and has only become widespread in the past two decades. Today, all 50 U.S. states have laws that can impose ignition interlock conditions on those convicted of DUI. In Canada, most provinces — including Ontario — impose mandatory ignition interlock conditions on anyone convicted of DUI, while some use it as a supplemental sentencing condition depending on the DUI circumstances.

Even your smartphone can be used as a preventative tool to help discourage impaired driving, as apps have been developed to calculate inebriation, test BAC, easily contact alternative transportation, and issue warnings about the dangers of impaired driving. Of course, to be of any use, a driver must take advantage of them after having a drink or more.

Turn to Toronto’s Mass Tsang for Your DUI Defence

Technology probably won’t help if police arrest you for DUI, but we might be able to. Our Greater Toronto Area criminal defence lawyers have successfully defended over 1,000 defendants from DUI-related charges. Our detailed knowledge of DUI law helps us mount vigorous challenges to police procedures, and our technical understanding of breathalyzers and approved screening devices allows us to challenge the validity of BAC readings as warranted. If you’re facing DUI charges in the GTA, consult with us for expert legal guidance and skilled defence. To schedule your free consultation, contact Mass Tsang Today .



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