Study raises alarm about drugged drivers

Driving under the influence of legal and illegal drugs is causing the same concern for motorists today that drunken driving caused 40 years ago and should generate the same response.

That’s the conclusion of an updated study released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which called for greater enforcement of laws against impaired driving, improved training for police officers and increased educational programs to persuade drugged drivers not to get behind the wheel. (See the full study below.)

James Hedlund, a private consultant from Ithaca, N.Y., updated a study he did in 2014 and found that in 2015, for the first time, more drivers who were tested after fatal crashes had drugs in their system (41.7 percent) than had alcohol (37.3 percent).

He stressed that doesn’t mean drugged drivers were involved in or caused more fatal crashes than drunken drivers, because there is no objective test for when someone is impaired by drugs and because states don’t test all drivers killed in crashes.

But the number of drivers who are killed with drugs in their systems is enough to sound the alarm about a looming problem, said Mr. Hedlund, formerly an associate administrator for traffic safety programs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Alcohol is really simple because there is an objective test that shows a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 … is too high to drive,” Mr. Hedlund said. “The relationship between alcohol and crash risk has been known for 40 years.

“There is no similar test for drugs that says how much is too much and there probably never will be” because drugs have varying effects on users.

As a result, he said, “drivers don’t understand the risk” or even recognize they are driving under the influence of drugs, which is enhanced if they also drank alcohol. Another element is the move by 29 states to legalize some form of marijuana, which was found in 36.5 percent of the deceased drivers who had drugs in their systems.

“Years ago, the common phrase at a party at the end of the night was, ‘How about one for the road?’” Mr. Hedlund said. “Now, the question is, ‘Who’s the designated driver?’

“What’s needed is that same level of recognition for drugged driving.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that drug use and abuse often is a private or small-group activity, so it’s difficult for others to intervene to prevent someone from drugged driving.

The law enforcement community is aware of the problem, but it’s not an easy one to address, said Moon police Sgt. Doug Ogden, a drug recognition expert and coordinator of the West Hills DUI Task Force, which covers 15 suburban communities. Pennsylvania recently tested all DUI blood samples and found 50 percent also contained drugs, he said, and drugged driving was a primary topic at the annual Pennsylvania Highway Safety Conference in State College recently.

“We’re really rolling into an era…

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