Dastiger Khan was a University of Waterloo fraternity brother when he noticed something troubling wafting over many of the parties he and his friends would throw.
“Me and my partners, we threw a lot of events … and we always promoted designated drivers at our parties,” says Khan, a 23-year-old economics major at the school. “What we often noticed was individuals that would be fine with not drinking and driving (but) they would be fine with smoking a joint or hitting a bong.”
Worried they could face civil or criminal liability if a stoned driver got into an accident, Khan and three pals from Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University brainstormed. And out of that came a new roadside screening device — known as Guard-Ex — that has attracted $1 million in start-up funding and is now being road-tested by several municipal police forces across the province.
Instead of screening for levels of alcohol, cannabis components or other drugs in the body, the group’s new technology acts more like a cop in a box — incorporating many of the roadside tests that specially trained police officers would conduct to determine impairment.
Specifically, the contraption mimics many of the important functions that are part of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) protocols, which are the gold standard for determining if someone is wrecked behind the wheel.
The trouble with these established tests, however, are twofold.
First, because of the expense — some $15,000 to fully train and equip an officer — only a small portion of police on any force are taught the techniques. The Toronto Police Service, for example, has only a “few hundred” of its 5,400 uniformed officers trained in the specialized screening tests, says spokesperson Clint Stibbe.
Second, the main line of attack that defence lawyers use in court for clients judged impaired by the trained officers is that the tests were biased or flawed in their administration.
“We’re taking (many) of the different tests from the DFST and DRE and we’re automating them,” Khan says. “It removes the human bias and error from it, and it can concretely hold up in court,” he says, adding the devices would also make the tests more widely available.
The device — which can be mounted at head height on an adjustable pole — comes in a black, hard-shelled case, which opens up to expose a host of testing gadgetry on its inner face.
There is a virtual-reality-like visor that drivers look into for a series of tests that track eye movement. These include horizontal gaze nystagmus and vertical gaze nystagmus exams, which police would normally perform by scanning a pen light in front of a driver’s face to check for shaking or jerking in the eyes, as they move sideways and up and down.
Specific to cannabis intoxication, the visor also looks for something called convergence, which is the smooth crossing of the eyes as a light or object moves towards them. The eyes of people high on pot do not cross in a normal fashion, Khan says.
The device — which made an appearance on the CBC television show Dragons’ Den — also has sensors to test for telltale temperature and heartbeat fluctuation during the exam, which takes about 90 seconds to two minutes to complete.
Khan, who is CEO of the Guard-Ex company, says the device has advantages over newly approved cannabis detectors, which use roadside saliva swabs to gauge levels of the psychoactive pot component THC in a driver’s body.
Since THC can linger in the bloodstream for days, however, many drivers may believe they’re long past the point of impairment when they get behind the wheel, he says.
“So instead of the current devices that measure for a level of substance in a person’s body … we’re focused on impairment itself and not the chemical component,” says Khan.
Having no technical capacity to build the machine, Khan and his partners shipped the idea out to the Kitchener tech firm SnapPea Design to build.
Khan, along with current and recent Wilfrid Laurier students Harmeet Chauhan, 23, Baltej Sandhu, 24, and Rahul Malhotra, 23, received the $1-million funding from that school’s Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation’s LaunchPad incubator fund.
Centre founder Bob Schlegel, a Texas paving-stone mogul and 1972 Laurier grad, says the legalization of cannabis in Canada and in more and more U.S. states piqued his interest in the device.
“I just think it’s a great concept,” says Schlegel, who kicked in all of the start-up funding when the expected Dragons’ Den money failed to materialize because of a disagreement with the investor.
Schlegel, who grew up on a farm near Kitchener, says the device will improve road safety in Canada.
Khan says his group consulted veteran police officers from several Ontario forces when designing the device. One of these was long-time Waterloo Regional Police chief, Larry Gravill, an old friend of Schlegel, who was so impressed with the idea he urged his old force to try it out.
“I’ve been helping them open a few doors that way, and giving them some advice on the development and some of the processes,” says Gravill, who was chief from 1992 to 2007.
He says the Guard-Ex could assist many more officers in roadside impairment assessments, but not replace human screening capabilities completely.
“I would say that at least half the functions they preform in that (Drug Recognition Expert) review could be done in about a minute and a half with the Guard-Ex device,” says Gravill, who is not being paid by the Kitchener-based company.
He says officers can certainly augment the roadside assessments with their sense of smell and by observing other signs of impairment.
“Drug-recognition officers might be offended if I called their review subjective because they are trying to be, of course, very objective,” he says. “But I think the fact that you have a human doing it, there’s some interpretation issues that I think an impartial device” can help alleviate.
The device is also being test-driven by several other Ontario police forces, Gravill says.
“ I think the testing by front-line officers is going to be key in the next iteration of development for the device,” he says.
For police to use the device right now, drivers have to volunteer for a test, which police could not legally use as an enforcement tool.
It’s also being used by the trucking firm giant Challenger Motor Freight, which is most interested in its ability to detect fatigue, Gravill says.
MADD Canada head Andrew Murie says the idea that the device could weaken defence arguments of bias and error and expand the screening techniques to far more officers is sound.
“It would be amazing if it worked,” says Murie.
But he says new screening device ideas come and go with regularity.
“What I’m seeing is a lot of dreams, not a lot of reality,” Murie says, adding that any device has to be approved through the Drugs and Driving Committee of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science and the federal justice department before police can order drivers to use it.
Of the current Guard-Ex deployments, he says: “It’s not a bad idea to try it out.”
Joseph Hall is a Toronto-based reporter and feature writer. Reach him on email: email@example.com