Fun Stuff

Suiting up to Combat Impaired Driving

A lucky volunteer takes the impairment suit challenge

With holiday season coming, you're probably thinking about all the tasty beverages you'll enjoy at parties with friends, and the ones you'll need for those fraught family gatherings.

There's nothing wrong with some judicious alcohol consumption, but a "Choose Your Ride" event staged by the Ottawa Police Service and Ford of Canada earlier this week served as a reminder that your intoxication becomes everyone else's problem the moment you get behind the wheel.

Ford's involvement here wasn't to promote a new car or fancy technology, but to raise awareness of impaired driving and the importance of planning a safe way to get home after an evening of drinking, either by appointing a designated driver or using a drive-home service. (We've listed a number of such programs available in Canadian cities at the end of this article.) That awareness campaign is built around an "impairment suit" the company developed with Germany's Meyer-Henschel Institute (a company that specializes in mobility impairment research) to simulate the physical symptoms of alcohol and drug impairment.

What Ford calls a suit is really a collection of components: weights go around one ankle and the opposite wrist; tensor bandages restrict elbow and knee movement; hearing is muffled with a set of ear protectors like the ones construction workers wear; and a set of really trippy goggles goes over your eyes to completely mess with your vision.

Before strapping velcro all over me, the cops put me through what they call a "standardized roadside sobriety test," the sequence of actions they'll ask a driver to perform if they suspect that driver is under the influence. You may have seen this in TV shows or movies, and even joked about it with your friends, but it's the real deal: first, they had me count off nine steps in a straight line, touching heel to toe for every step, then turn around and do it again. The next trick was to lift one foot a few inches off the ground, toes pointed forward, and count, while staring at that foot. Finally, the officer asked me to touch the tip of my nose with the tip of one or the other index finger--left, right, left, right, right, left--to see how well I could follow his instructions.

It's easy stuff—that is, until I donned that suit and ran through the sequence again. If I already felt self-conscious doing all this stuff in the middle of the busy student commons building at Ottawa's Algonquin College, I now felt like an absolute spectacle as I struggled to stay upright with those weights throwing off my balance. It didn't help that the goggles appear to shift your blurred vision a metre to the left--how'd the line get way over there?!--and I could barely hear the officer’s instructions.

I couldn't help but laugh after thoroughly embarrassing myself in front of chortling college kids, but this is serious stuff: that suit is meant to make you feel like your blood alcohol level is somewhere between 0.17 and 0.2 percent--more than double the legal limit (0.08 percent) in Canada.

Sgt. John Kiss of the Ottawa Police Service says this method of roadside testing has been around since the 1970s, and isn't going away any time soon, especially as cannabis use continues to become more common.

"We have a roadside screening device for alcohol impairment,” Kiss said, adding that there's no on-the-spot method for testing a driver for THC, the intoxicant in marijuana. "Field sobriety testing is the only way to gauge whether someone is under the influence of something other than alcohol that can't be detected via the Intoxilyzer." (That's the successor to the better-know Breathalyzer, by the way.)

For the record, if you refuse to submit to a roadside sobriety test, the cops have the right to pull your driver's license for 90 days, and impound your vehicle for seven.

Kiss said that in Ontario, Ottawa's is one of three police departments that trains every officer to conduct roadside impairment testing (the others are Kitchener and Peterborough), and he'd like to see Ford partner with police departments so the impairment suit could become part of that training process.

"They did a fantastic job with it. It would be a great training and educational tool," he said.

Training cops about enforcement of impaired driving is a lot of work, but Kiss said it's still necessary even as social norms have shifted over the past couple of decades.

"It's hard to tell if there are more impaired drivers this time of year, or if we’re getting more of them due to an increased level of enforcement," he said. "We're seeing that a large percentage of society is 'getting it,' but we can't say we think everyone will ever get (that drinking and driving is unacceptable)."

For those who do get it, and want to get home safely, here's a list of designated driver services available in various Canadian cities. Keep in mind that most of these companies require you to reserve in advance.

Operation Red Nose – This service operates in select communities in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Saskatchewan. Find your community on its Web site and carry the phone number with you when you go out. When you call, a team of volunteers will come to you – whether you’re at a bar or a private party – and will drive both you and your vehicle either to your home, or to your final destination for the night. It’s free, but if you give a donation, it will go to a local charity.

Taxiguy – Call one number – 1-888-TAXIGUY – and you’re connected to a national network of 425 taxicab companies, for a total of 17,500 cabs in over 700 cities and towns. You can buy “Taxi Dollars” through the Web site, redeemable in the cabs, that you can tuck in your wallet for emergencies, or give as gifts.

#TAXI – Use your cell phone to call #TAXI – that’s #-8-2-9-4 – anywhere in Canada, give your location, and you’ll be immediately connected to either the first available taxi company, or one of your choice. The call costs from $1.25 to $1.79. It’s especially handy if you’re not familiar with the area and don’t know which company to call.

Public Transit – Many areas offer special holiday service, and some provide free rides on New Year’s Eve. Check your local services, either on the Web or by calling, to get bus, train or other transit schedules.

As a party host – Be aware that you can be held responsible for your guests’ drinking and driving in many jurisdictions. Hosting tips for safe parties can be found at Arrive Alive.

The iPhone offers a Designated Driver app, which uses the phone’s built-in GPS to send your location to taxi companies or friends. Before you go out, you can set up a list from your contacts. When you’re ready, your phone sends text messages to your friends, telling them you’re ready to come home and sending them a map of your location.

Designated driver services

There are numerous companies across Canada offering designated driver services. Below is a partial list; a quick Internet search for such services in your region ("designated driver service Kitchener," for example) will bring up numerous results. (Note that these are listed for information only; does not endorse any services.)


Medicine Hat: Keys Please
Calgary & Area: Keys Please
Calgary: Drivers Choice

British Columbia

Vancouver: Sober Girls
Vancouver & Lower Mainland: Keys Please
Prince George: Keys Please
Kelowna: Designated Driver Dads


Durham and York Region: Keys To Us
Barrie: Dial-A-Driver
Ottawa: Responsible Choice


Montreal: Point Zero Eight (requires membership)