Say the alphabet backwards; follow the light with your eyes. These old field sobriety tests - often employed by police officers in T.V. shows and movies - may make a comeback with the aid of new technology being pioneered in Alberta.

Currently, for police officers in Canada, there's only one test that is approved to measure cannabis impairment in drivers, the Dräger DrugTest 5000c, which detects the presence of THC in a person's saliva.

However, DriveABLE and SafetyScan Technologies - both based in Alberta - are paving the way for new methods to test for sobriety, or someone's lack thereof.

It wasn't exactly Canada's legalization of cannabis that spurred these two Alberta-based companies to find new ways of measuring impairment, but, sure enough, the legalization of marijuana on October 17 drew extra attention towards their work.

Read: Cannabis Legalization and Agricultural Innovation in Alberta

Unlike the Dräger, DriveABLE tests cognition to assess a person's level of impairment. The test, which is commonly administered via tablet, offers four neuro-psychological tasks, each designed to measure the cognitive functioning in the areas of the brain that are essential for driving and operating in safety-sensitives environments.

DriveABLE's cognitive assessment tool.
Source: DriveABLE

“We don't look at them in isolation, but rather we look at how they work together to execute a safe task,” said P-J Barclay, President and CEO at DriveABLE. “We look at how reaction time works together with executive functioning, or how reaction time works with a person's ability to process multiple stimuli. Looking at that together gives us a predictive risk of impairment.”

Once completed, the test provides a “risk spectrum,” but doesn't differentiate between different forms of impairment, although it is capable of doing so.

“What's important is that our approach is cause agnostic. We don't really care what's in your system; we just ask if this person is actually able to perform the particular task you require from them,” Barclay said.

“Really, there's no difference in a person being impaired if they're using cannabis, if they're using cocaine or if they're fatigued. It just happens to be that cannabis has opened up that question about what impairment is and how it should be measured.”

So far, DriveABLE is working with both law enforcement agencies and various industries where risk management is crucial. According to Barclay, the company is still in the early stages of working with both groups. He expects that, in the second half of 2019, DriveABLE, which was founded 18 years ago with research out of the University of Alberta, will be able to release a product that can reach a wider audience, as it's largely in its test stages at the moment.

DriveABLE has also done work in the United States, notably in 2014 when Colorado legalized recreational cannabis and had to perform research on impaired driving to cater to new laws.

Right now, Edmonton Police Service (EPS) is doing some work with DriveABLE, auditing its standard field sobriety test (SFST) courses. According to Cheryl Voordenhout, Communications Advisor with EPS' Media Relations unit, there is “some work underway to possibly move our SFST evaluations from paper to a digital platform.”

The SFST includes preliminary questions, an eye exam and some movement tests.

EPS has purchased a few of the Dräger tests and is in the process of testing them in the field. Future purchases will be informed by these tests, Voordenhout wrote in an email. It's still early days for the saliva-based metric, and any additional pieces of technology EPS adds to its arsenal will need to be approved federally before they can be considered.

SafetyScan Technologies, on the other hand, focuses specifically on high-risk industries, and those that require driving, such trucking and crane operation. The business is seeing interest from in Canada, the U.S., South America and India. The technology looks like a grey box a few feet tall, with a small portal to peer into.

SafetyScan's impairment screener tests for psychomotor impairment.
Source: SafetyScan

“We're looking at how the eyes move ... Anything that causes human psycho-motor impairment can be seen through the eyes,” said Randal Roberts, President and CEO of SafetyScan. “One of the things that happens with cannabis is if we flash a light at your eyes, your pupils will get large, get small, get large - it just goes back and forth real quickly, which is kind of unusual.”

The technology requires a baseline reading for every person using it so the system can check against it. The machine looks for significant deviations from a person's norm, Roberts said. In all, the test takes about 30 seconds. The data collected is sent back to SafetyScan's database and analyzed.

The machine gives a pass or “refer” verdict after the test; the latter means the person should speak with their supervisor or a human resources representative, who will often have policies in place to deal with the possible impairment.

SafetyScan can detect impairment from all legal and illegal drugs, as well as other elements like fatigue and “unintentional impairment” caused by life stress. People shouldn't be penalized for, say, having a new baby, but a person's employer and colleagues should know the degree to which it's affecting them.

Roberts has been working on SafetyScan for the past six years, after finding some research out of the U.S. and buying the worldwide license for it.

“We're really excited to be doing this here in Alberta. There's a great market here for the product - it sort of started with the oil and gas industry,” he said. “It's going to be a good ride, I think.”

Both SafetyScan and DriveABLE offer alternatives to testing for impairment using chemical methods. In some ways, this is a boon. Cannabis, for instance, can be detected in a person's blood or urine long after they have consumed it, which is hardly fair, Roberts said.

“We're testing how you are right now, not what you did on the weekend with your buddy,” Roberts said. “Everybody has a right to a personal life, and a right to privacy.”

According to Barclay, DriveABLE focuses on cognition as a measurement of impairment as it's a part of “every human action while we are awake.” As such, it provides a more meaningful representation of how safe or not safe a person is at performing a task compared to other measurements like the concentration of a drug in the blood or urine, which are not necessarily predictive of performance risk.

“What legalization of cannabis has done is gotten people to wake up and ask 'what is impairment, and are we measuring it appropriately?'” he said.