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Ontario's holiday R.I.D.E. (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere) program was rolled out last week, marking perhaps the only time most of us don't dread seeing flashing red lights while being signalled to stop. As much.

Officers from forces across Southern Ontario teamed up with Police Services students at Humber College's north campus to kick-start the program, in its 36th year. The lineup of police rigs was impressive, from huge vans to undercover vehicles to a motorcycle. More than one student did a double take at a hearse parked among the emergency vehicles. Subtle? Not a bit.

Some people think the program is an infringement on their rights and there are lawyers who readily agree. Some of those people flock to Twitter each year to reveal R.I.D.E. locations. Are there issues of free speech and due process that could be entertained here? Sure. But most of us, unfortunately, have some kind of personal experience with impaired drivers. My first boyfriend was killed by a drunk driver. I'm extremely biased.

R.I.D.E. check locations aren't chosen randomly. Police target a sweeping cross-section of drivers on a committed course – cresting a hill, the point of no return on a highway ramp, just past that curve. Evasive action is not recommended.

Constable Clint Stibbe, with the Toronto Police Service, laughs when asked about drivers determined to avoid the stop. "We see U-turns, but the officers are on it instantly. We see people attempt to back up, but they have to understand they're out-manned." You might as well put a spotlight over your head.

What if your evasive action isn't because of impairment, but because you realize your licence is on the counter at home, or you haven't gotten around to replacing that burned out headlight?

"The spirit of the R.I.D.E. check is to ensure sobriety. That first officer isn't looking for licence, registration and insurance when you pull up," says Stibbe. "Can another officer move to the [Highway] Traffic Act? Yes. But our priority is impairment."

This is a careful way of saying that the first officer can't deal with traffic act violations. But other officers can be running plates or doing vehicle checks, and you could be handed off like a baton in a relay race.

"The courts are very clear on how we can proceed. Each checkpoint will have a sergeant and maybe five officers and the breath tech," he says. "You may have me doing the sobriety check, but a different officer may be doing a vehicle check ... We also have the units to chase down anyone who tries to dodge the stop."

The province spends $2.4-million annually on R.I.D.E., an amount that was doubled from $1.2 million in 2007-08. Stops have risen accordingly, from 505,733 in 2007-08 to 1,016,786 in 2011/12. The increase in stops, however, can't account for a disturbing trend: the number of charges last year were the highest in eight years. Police laid 693 impaired charges, up from 652 in 2010-11 and 294 in 2009-10.

Drivers aged 21 and younger must have a zero alcohol level regardless of licence grade, and officers may ask for proof of age. Stibbe reminds motorists that if they're the accompanying driver to someone with a G1 licence, their own blood alcohol concentration can't exceed 0.05 per cent.

A stop may only take 10-15 seconds, but during that time the officer is hitting a mental checklist. Stibbe says the tabulation starts immediately.

"Bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, odour of alcohol coming from the vicinity of the driver or on the breath, slurred speech, unco-ordinated movement, sleepiness, lack of ability to follow simple instructions, admission of consumption ('I only had one') or another admission of consumption ('It's been hours'), and yes, passing out." He notes these may be classic signs of impairment, but he also says that often, "people think they're covering well. They're not. We can almost always tell when you're trying to hide something."

Anyone can be asked to take a breathalyzer, and registering zero to 0.049 per cent is considered a pass. Blow between 0.05 and 0.099, and you will be warned. Your car will be impounded for three days and your licence suspended for five. Blow over 0.099 and you're facing criminal charges. Police go with 0.099 to allow for a margin of error (0.08 is the legal definition of impaired), but more comprehensive testing will take place.

If your choice of drug won't trigger the breathalyzer, police won't hesitate to call in the heavy hitters – officers trained to detect all types of impairment, not just alcohol.

If police clear a passenger to drive your car in your place, you can avoid having your car impounded. This will save you money, if nothing else.

However, as Stibbe wonders, "why weren't they driving in the first place?'"

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