Drugged Driving Laws Need an Overhaul
According to a report released this week by the Governors Highway Safety Association, the number of dead drivers who tested positive for drugs jumped to nearly 40 percent in 2013 from 29 percent in 2005. They attributed the big jump to an increase in prescription drug use and to the legalization of marijuana. You can add to this list the increase use of designer drugs, the aging population with 30% taking 2 or more prescription medications, and, the co-use of alcohol and drugs while driving. The Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University predicts that in the next 5-6 years drugged driving will overtake drunk driving on the roadways. Last year the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission conducted a small pilot project and found that the drivers stopped overwhelmingly had drugs as opposed to alcohol in their blood. In many instances it was more than one drug.
Roadside Drug Testing is Needed
What does all of this mean for safety on our roads and highways? We need more efficient ways to test for drugs at the roadside. Many companies are ahead of the curve and are working on developing roadside breathalyzers and oral fluid testing. Some of these technologies are already being used in Australia and New Zealand. We need an increase in Drug Recognition Law Enforcement Experts (DREs). Although every state now has a DRE Program, it is currently only 1% of the law enforcement population. We also need to rethink the type of driving laws we have in place across the country.
“Per Se” Drug Laws are Needed
Twenty states have zero tolerance laws whereby any amount of an illegal substance found in the body are considered per se impairment. Almost half of these states also include inactive metabolites. These type laws would cover illicit drug use such as heroin which is at epidemic levels in some states, but, these laws do not address legal prescription medications. Other than 5 states that have per se THC/marijuana set levels of impairment and a couple of states such as Virginia that address a few drugs with set levels for impairment, we have no laws in place addressing the use and abuse of prescription medications while driving. The U.S. Courts are left to adjudicate prescription drugged driving cases on an individual ad hoc basis.
In Europe, they have taken a different approach. Last year Wales and England identified many of the drugs most often prescribed and set impairment levels for them while driving. Although the list of prescription drugs is large and people metabolize drugs differently and build tolerances to them, if the U.S. does not begin to consider taking a page out of the books of Australia, New Zealand, England and Wales, drug related crashes and fatalities will continue to grow. The U.S should at least identify some of the more commonly used prescription drugs like Prozac and Ativan and start to urge the States thru DOT tax dollars to set per se impairment levels for them. What are we waiting for?
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