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home : news : state news July 22, 2017

5/19/2017 7:23:00 AM
Duffy calls for attention to drug-impaired driving
Report: More fatalities than drunk driving

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Drug-impaired driving is a major but under-addressed issue in the U.S. - associated with more fatalities than drunk driving - and, in the wake of an updated report highlighting the problem, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin) called upon the Trump administration this week to issue national recommendations to improve public safety.

Duffy made his appeal in a May 16 letter to U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Elaine Chao.

Duffy said the department issues critical guidance that helps Americans feel safe on and off the road and similar guidance for drug-impaired driving could be crucial in improving motor vehicle safety, given the rising number of such driving accidents and their implication in fatalities nationwide.

"In a report titled, 'Drug Impaired Driving,' released by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibly, it is reported that driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) was associated with more deaths than driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI)," Duffy wrote. "In fact, according to the report, 43 percent of fatally injured motorists had drugs in their system."

The unfortunate reality is, Duffy said, while DUID laws are easy to understand, they are much more difficult to enforce and prosecute.

According to the report, that is true for many different reasons. Not least, the report states, hundreds of different drugs can impair drivers, and, while some drugs that can impair driving are illegal to use, some are legal to use under certain conditions, and some are freely available over-the-counter.

"For many drugs, the relations between a drug's presence in the body, its effect on driving, and its effects on crash risk are complex, not understood well, and vary from driver to driver," the report stated.

In addition, the report continues, data on drug presence in crash-involved drivers are incomplete in most jurisdictions, inconsistent from state to state, and sometimes inconsistent across jurisdictions within states.

"It's more difficult for law enforcement to detect drug impairment at the roadside than alcohol impairment," the report stated. "Laws regarding driving while under the influence of drugs (DUID) vary across the states."

In addition to drugs being present in 43 percent of the fatally-injured drivers with a known test result - that's more frequently than alcohol was present, the report pointed out - a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration roadside survey in 2013-14 found drugs in 22 percent of all drivers both on weekend nights and on weekdays.

The report cited the increasingly widespread legalization and decriminalization of marijuana use as a factor.

"As of April 2017, marijuana may be used for medical purposes in 29 states and the District of Columbia," the report stated. "The most recent is West Virginia, which authorized medical marijuana in April 2017, with use to begin in July 2019. Recreational use is allowed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia and 13 other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana."

Congress identified drug-impaired driving as a priority in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act of 2015, the report observed.

"This multi-year highway bill directed NHTSA to develop education campaigns to increase public awareness about the dangers associated with drugged driving," the report stated. "The act also required the Department of Transportation to study the relationship between marijuana use and driving impairment and to identify effective methods to detect marijuana-impaired drivers."

The Governors Highway Safety Association said the report aims to equip states and policymakers with the latest research, data, laws, and programs to help them address the growing problem. The new edition included recent data on drug use by drivers and drug involvement in crashes, new state laws and programs, and information from more than 30 additional research studies.

"As states across the country continue to struggle with drug-impaired driving, it's critical that we help them understand the current landscape and provide examples of best practices so they can craft the most effective countermeasures," Jonathan Adkins, executive director of GHSA, said.

Duffy calls for recommendations

In his letter, Duffy said there are current programs that can both help increase enforcement and help judges in the courtroom prosecute drivers who are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs.

"The Drug Evaluation and Classification Program trains officers to be certified Drug Recognition Experts who can identify the signs and symptoms of impairment by different categories of drugs," Duffy wrote.

According to the report, such an expert performs a 90-minute, 12-step evaluation at the police station, including both behavioral tests and a physical examination.

"DREs usually are quite accurate in confirming a driver's drug impairment and identifying the type of drug responsible for the impairment," the report stated. "The main issues are the expense of training and the need to provide adequate coverage. The DRE training of 72 hours in the classroom and 40 to 60 hours in the field takes an officer away from regular duties for three to four weeks."

Because of those factors, Duffy says not all law enforcement participates.

"Unfortunately, the courses to recognize the behavioral signs of drug impairment are not always required," he wrote. "In many instances, officers are not trained to identify the signs and symptoms of drivers impaired by drugs other than alcohol."

To be effective, the report says a DRE should be available to evaluate a substantial proportion of drivers suspected of impairment by drugs, and that means a state must have an adequate number of DREs and they should be located throughout the state.

"In an effort to increase the number of officers with specialized training, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility provided grants totaling nearly $80,000 to train and certify 70 new DREs and train over 400 officers in ARIDE in Florida, Illinois, Nevada, and Texas in 2016," the report stated. "Additional grants will be awarded in 2017."

But the report also says a DRE cannot evaluate a driver unless the investigating officer at the roadside has enough evidence of drug impairment to arrest the driver and bring him or her to the police station. In 2014, the report states, the 50 states and the District of Columbia reported 26,471 DRE evaluations conducted by 5,098 DREs to NHTSA's data tracking.

Still, Duffy wrote to Chao, the rising use of pot continues to drive drug-impaired driving higher.

"As more states opt to legalize marijuana in contravention of federal law, the use of drugs by drivers also increases," he wrote. "We request that the department issue recommendations on this issue to improve public safety."

Federal recommendations

Chief among the report's recommendations is increased training for law enforcement officers to help them identify and arrest drugged drivers, and it includes a number of recommendations aimed at both the state and federal levels.

Indeed, the report said several actions at the federal level would help states reduce drug-impaired driving.

Education would be a critical component of the plan. The report called for developing and implementing a national drugged driving education campaign, as well as the development of materials for prosecutors on basic drugged driving information.

"Topics could include basic DUID, marijuana, and prescription medications," the report stated. "Similarly, many judges could use short briefs on legal issues of DUID such as DRE evidence ... as well as information on sentencing practices and how to deal with offenders' drug addiction. State legislators could use accurate, focused, and impartial information when faced with pressures to legislate."

Beyond education, the report said enforcement would play a vital role. On the national level, the report urged, it would be helpful to develop accurate, inexpensive, and convenient roadside oral fluid testing devices, as well as accurate, inexpensive, and convenient roadside breath testing for marijuana. The report also called for continuing to evaluate the usefulness of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests for identifying impairment by various drugs.

"An accurate, reliable, and inexpensive oral fluid test device that could be used at the roadside would be very useful," the report stated. "It should be quick and easy to use and should detect the most common drugs that impair drivers. If an oral fluid test were of evidential quality for some drugs it might reduce the need for blood tests. Research is needed to continue refining, evaluating, and eventually establishing standards for oral fluid test devices."

A marijuana breath test device would be valuable, the report stated.

"Marijuana is the most common drug used by drivers in most states, so a breath test specific to marijuana would be justified," the report stated. "Marijuana concentrations in the body dissipate rapidly, so the ability to test at the roadside would be especially valuable. Continuing research is needed to determine if a useful marijuana breath test device can be developed."

The report also addressed what it called a fundamental data gap: the lack of any consistent national data on the extent of drug-impaired driving in the United States and poor data in many states.

Obtaining accurate data is difficult, the report stated, because many drivers in crashes or arrested for DUI are not tested at all for drugs; drivers use many different drugs, and it is impossible to test for all; drug testing is expensive; and current drug tests require a bodily fluid - blood, urine, or saliva - that is more time-consuming and invasive than obtaining a breath sample for an alcohol test.

In addition, the report stated, some drug concentrations dissipate rapidly, so delays in drawing blood produce spuriously low results, while metabolites of some drugs remain in the body long after any impairment has disappeared, producing spuriously high results.

"Nevertheless, drug-impaired driving data could be improved considerably by actions at both national and state levels," the report concluded.

In that vein, the report continued, the most likely group for which good data could be obtained is fatally-injured drivers.

"There are over 20,000 of these fatalities annually (22,150 in 2015); they are high-profile, they frequently are autopsied as required either by state law or medical examiner policy, and FARS assembles the available data on all of them," the report stated. "However, as noted, state drug testing practices for fatally-injured drivers differ substantially."

Indeed, testing rates vary from 90 percent or greater (seven states) to 10 percent or fewer (two states), with 62.6 percent tested nationwide, the report stated.

As such, the report concluded, the NHTSA should establish national standards, as recommended by NTSB. Those standards would include developing and disseminating to appropriate state officials a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing, including the circumstances under which tests should be conducted, a minimum set of drugs for which to test, and cutoff values for reporting the results.

Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, May 20, 2017
Article comment by: Denise A. Valenti

Thank you for commenting on impaired driving with cannabis use. It is a complex problem. Every effort should be made to enable our law enforcement professionals to do their job. More and better studies need to be done. The state of Washington recognized this and worked with private agencies to survey the crash and fatality rates They separate out alcohol, psychoactive THC and inactive THC. What is clear is that the fatality rate specific to cannabis, both active and inactive forms of THC--has increased. Another chilling statistic: Those testing positive for marijuana alone, not alcohol or other drugs, are FIVE TIMES more likely to kill someone other than themselves compared to a driver testing positive for alcohol. In general, those that are drunk usually kill themselves, those that are stoned kill others.
Until there are tests of function to correlate with a biologic such as blood or saliva, the best line of defense are those professional law enforcement officers trained in drug impaired detection such as RIDE or DRE. Again, data is muddy, but the state of Oregon did not have the dramatic increase in marijuana specific road fatalities. They also have the highest ratio of DRE trained officers per population...in the nation. Perhaps all should study what Oregon did right. Tests of function are desperately needed so as to obtain convictions and remove these dangerous drivers from the road. IMMAD - Impairment Measurement Marijuana and driving is a simple app for a tablet that objectively measures functional impairment. It measures the visual field deficits (HUGE BLIND SPOTS or TUNNEL VISION) that occurs with marijuana use. Marijuana has been shown to significantly impair the eye retinal ganglion cells. IMMAD - Impairment Measurement Marijuana and Driving, measures this. IMMAD and other tests of function need to be further developed and studied so as to have better tools for law enforcement to use in dealing with marijuana impaired driving.

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