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Drunk drivers use social media to evade police checkstops

By in News
Saskatoon police conduct a drunk driving check stop on the university bridge.
When police services in Canada conducted their annual public crackdown on drunk drivers over the recent holidays, many social media users shared checkstop locations and blew police cover.

Ontario’s Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere, or RIDE, program was regularly sabotaged. Many Twitter users announced checkstop locations throughout late December using the hashtags #RIDE and #checkstop, which triggered an online shitstorm between those tweeting locations, concerned citizens and members of the police.

Those who tweeted locations, which included several anonymous accounts that were set up solely to aggregate #RIDE tweets, were vilified for helping drunk drivers avoid checkstops and putting lives in danger.

On Christmas Eve, for instance, many in the Toronto area lashed out at tipsters, calling them “dirtbags,” “losers” and supporters of drunk driving. One columnist for the Toronto Star singled out individual users and compiled a list of everyone who tweeted RIDE locations that evening. And even a member of the police force weighed in when Toronto traffic officer Sergeant Tim Burrows tweeted out a blunt response from his personal account: “If you tweet a #RIDE location tonight, make sure you also apologize tomorrow to any families who lose a loved one to a drunk driver.”

But those who do it argue they are merely helping sober drivers avoid long traffic waits, and because it is not a clear obstruction of justice there is little law enforcement can do. In Calgary, Edmonton and Regina, police have pleaded with the public not to post checkstop locations.

However, the Saskatoon Police Service has taken an alternative stance. Alyson Edwards, spokesperson for the Saskatoon police, said they have to be realistic with their approach to emerging social media.

“We have to realize that people are going to share that information… and instead of asking people not to do it, our approach is to actually embrace Twitter and Facebook as another way to get the message out and to keep a dialogue going about drinking and driving.”

The Saskatoon police, in co-ordination with the Saskatchewan Government Insurance corporation and a handful of police services across the province, participated in Operation Overdrive by running checkstops at various Saskatoon locations in December. Although they did not advertise the locations beforehand, Edwards said they were no secret. The police service, she adds, believes the more frequently the public discusses drinking and driving, the more people will second-guess doing it.

One tweet sent from @SaskatoonPolice in December read: “Operation Overdrive checkstops are scheduled for tonight. If you drink, don’t drive. Plan ahead, make arrangements, and stick with them.”

Edwards noted checkstops are just one method the service uses to target drunk drivers and pointed out that the recently expanded Report Impaired Drivers — which began as a pilot program in Saskatoon in 2010 — has been very successful.

The RID program is a campaign spearheaded by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority that asks the public to pull over and dial 911 when they think see erratic driving or other signs of drunk driving.

It has since been adopted in Regina, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert.

According to the SPS website, they have fielded more than 1,900 calls from the public, leading to 110 impaired driving charges since RID began. In addition, they have sent “645 warning letters to vehicle owners, advising that their vehicles had been reported to police as possibly being operated by an impaired driver.”

Edwards says statistics reveal for the most part checkstops do not result in a high number of driving under the influence charges.

“It’s more about creating public awareness and a dialogue about impaired driving. Putting this big checkstop on, with all these flashing lights, and all these officers, it’s more about getting people to think twice about drinking and driving than getting charges.”

During one day of Operation Overdrive in December, the SPS reported stopping 503 motorists and administering 11 road-side breath tests “resulting in three 24 hour suspensions of driving privileges.” There were no charges laid for impaired driving at the checkstops.

Photo: Saskatoon Police

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