2011-12-30 / Opinion

The next case of impaired driving


“’Tis the season” is something we are all very familiar with, and often it’s related to celebrations and gatherings associated with the holiday season and the coming of the New Year.

It’s also a time in which we make resolutions on what we can do to become better people, or hopefully a better society.

I agree with Ashley Green Bonang’s letter to the editor (“Enact stricter penalties,” Dec. 21) about the dangers of drunk driving and its costs to our society. I am equally concerned about drugged driving and worry that as a state we are not prepared to deal with its effects on a person’s ability to drive.

December has been designated national Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and rightfully so. However, when we think of impaired driving, we often relate it to just alcohol.

Clearly, Americans are all-toofamiliar with the terrible consequences of driving drunk. But, did you know that one in three drivers who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 and were tested, tested positive for drugs?

With the dramatic increase of handheld phones and personal communication devices, campaign and laws targeting talking or texting while driving have become prominent. Yet an often overlooked and ever growing issue, especially in teens and young adults, is drugged driving.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2011 International Symposium on Drugs and Driving. There were representatives from 15 countries, representing North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Australia.

The purpose of the symposium was to share what this growing problem looks like and to develop a comprehensive framework that addresses legislation, education, detection and enforcement, and prevention.

While each country, and culture, may have differing approaches to the issue, one thing that everyone agreed on is that drugged driving is a transportation road safety issue as opposed to a drug policy issue.

This brings me to my point of concern. While nationally the number of drivers killed in crashes has decreased over the past five years, the number of drivers testing positive for drugs has increased by 18 percent.

Here in Maine, we are perhaps even more vulnerable to see an increase in the number of drug impaired crashes. Statistics show that Mainers are prescribed more drugs per capita than any other state in the nation.

It’s also well documented that Maine has a serious problem of painkiller addiction, as we lead the nation, again, in the number of addicts receiving treatment.

The issue of prescription drug abuse is paramount, and one can only imagine that those who abuse are also driving. Finally, let’s not forget that Maine is one of 16 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

Research shows that many prescription drugs have adverse effects on judgment, reaction time and motor skills. Marijuana — or cannabis — can significantly affect cognitive and motor skills that are essential to the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

More concerning is the impact on young adults and teenagers. According to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analysis, roughly one in four, 23 percent, of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs were younger than 25 years old.

After alcohol, marijuana was the most common substance found in young fatally injured drivers.

With drugs so prevalent in our society, it’s almost shocking that we have done little to detect and enforce the current laws that forbid driving while impaired.

While our laws aren’t exclusively for alcohol, there is a clear standard. Maine, like all 50 states, uses blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 percent as the limit for alcohol impairment.

However, there is no standard relationship between blood levels of a drug and impairment. Quite simply, impairment varies depending on the drug and the user.

When it comes to enforcing impaired driving laws, our police officers and deputies have few resources. They are trained to detect the effects of alcohol and are given specific tools to test for the presence of alcohol — standardized field sobriety test ( SFST), intoxilyzers and blood tests.

For the most part, these tests will hold up in court, and thus conviction rates for DUI are quite high. Conversely, proving a drug-impaired case in court is often more difficult.

In the United States, the most commonly accepted detection tool is the specially trained police officer who is a certified Drug Recognition Expert (DRE).

While the DRE is a good program, not every law enforcement agency has a trained officer on staff, let alone on-duty every shift.

The specialty training is a minimum of 72 hours and numerous sample tests in order to become certified. There are many challenges to employing DREs. The training is expensive and is only offered on a limited basis. Only 6,600 officers are trained in the U.S.

The process of becoming certified is not quick. The investigation of an individual case can take several hours, thus creating manpower issues.

While other countries are employing the use of oral fluid swabs, we have yet to approve any such product. Other countries also have changed their implied consent laws so that police may test them without a probable cause standard, but rather reasonable suspicion.

Moving forward, we must rethink drugged driving and not assume it’s like drunk driving. We must educate ourselves, including our doctors who prescribe and our judges who decide cases.

We must find and approve new tools that will allow us to better detect what’s affecting a driver, and we must consider legislative changes where necessary including the standards in which a driver must submit to testing. And yes, we must enact stricter penalties.

JOEL MERRY of West Bath is Sagadahoc County sheriff and a member of Mid Coast Communities Against Substance Abuse.

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