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Motorists in Saanich being asked to provide breath and saliva samples

Jun 26 2012

Almost 500 motorists passing through Saanich in the last few weeks have been asked to provide breath and saliva samples to test for drug and alcohol levels.

Doug Beirness, who is not a police officer, has been asking motorists to voluntarily provide the samples for a survey commissioned by the B.C. Superintendent of Motor Vehicles.

If they refuse, they're free to go. But 85 per cent agreed to participate, a response Beirness calls amazing.

"If we find someone who's had too much to drink, we put them in a cab and send them home," Beirness said.

"Most people are pretty happy to accept that offer," he said. "You're not going to get that kind of opportunity with a police officer, especially these days."

The testing wound up in Saanich on Saturday. Beirness had conducted similar surveys in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Prince George and Kelowna. The results of the survey are confidential.

Few people get the chance to test their blood-alcohol level and many are curious to know what it is, he said.

"We often get a driver who's willing to participate - they haven't been drinking at all - but they've got three or four passengers in the vehicle who have been drinking," Beirness said.

"The passengers don't have any idea what their alcohol level is, so we'll often go around and test them as well, just for informational, educational purposes."

Beirness conducted similar surveys in 2010 and 2008 and found eight to nine per cent of drivers had a detectable level of alcohol in their systems.

Eight per cent had a measurable amount of other substances.

Beirness doesn't post roadside signs telling motorists what he's doing for fear that intoxicated drivers would avoid the testing site.

Police at the testing sites flag down motorists and direct them toward Beirness so he can safely ask for volunteers.

Alcohol is the main intoxicant found in drivers, but marijuana and cocaine are increasing problems, he said.

"We're looking for amounts the lab can detect - and that's not a trivial amount," Beirness said.

While research shows drivers are legally impaired at a blood alcohol level of .05, it's not clear how various drug levels affect motorists.

Beirness is curious to see if the new survey's numbers reflect a drop in alcohol use as a result of more stringent drinking-and-driving laws.

"Right now, [police] are seeing a 40 per cent reduction of fatalities over the last couple of years - that's pretty dramatic," he said.

The data collected in this year's survey will be analyzed and delivered to the B.C. Superintendent of Motor Vehicles by the fall.

The information collected so far has been valuable, said Sgt. Mike Barkley of the Saanich police.

"Data from 2010 showed that during the evenings, 30 per cent of the travelling public have alcohol in their system, of which maybe five per cent are over the legal limit," Barkley said.

"This year, we'll find out if drugs are more prevalent. I think there is a slight increase in it.

"It's not socially acceptable to drink and drive, but maybe some people are turning to things like painkillers."

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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