Impaired driving involves more than just alcohol. It can and increasingly does involve drugs – including illegal substances like cocaine and heroin, newly-legal substances like marijuana (depending on your state), prescription medications and even over-the-counter drugs like cold medicine. Any substance that negatively impacts a person’s ability to safely drive a motor vehicle can be cited as a legal impairment to that driver.
It’s becoming an increasing phenomenon, according to a new analysis of the issue by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which just released a 51-page report.
It’s an issue to which North Carolina is not immune. Consider the recent case of the Wake County paramedic who was recently charged with driving while impaired by prescription drugs. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, the 26-year-old off-duty paramedic had taken prescription Xanax and Ambien (a sleep aid) before getting behind the wheel of his vehicle to go to work. It was shortly before 7:30 a.m. when his vehicle drifted across the road and ran head-on into another vehicle, carrying a father, pregnant mother and two children, ages 2 and 3. Amazingly, none of those in that vehicle were badly hurt.
The paramedic agreed to a blood test. It wasn’t clear exactly when he’d taken the medications, but the trooper said he’d failed several field sobriety tests rendered at the scene. A magistrate noted he’d been “extremely cooperative,” though he was still charged with DWI and placed on leave from his official duties.
It’s an example of the fact that drugged driving doesn’t always look the way we might expect.
The GHSA report referenced earlier 2013 findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, almost 40 percent of fatally injured drivers with a known blood analysis test result tested positive for some type of drugs. That figure has increased dramatically since 2005, when the figure was 27.8 percent of tested drivers.
What’s more, an anonymous roadside survey the NHTSA, conducted between 2013 and 2014 revealed 22 percent of drivers were under the influence of some type of drugs. It was as common on weekdays as it was on weekend nights. In particular, marijuana use is increasing, which should come as little surprise considering the doors that have open with the relaxation of criminal laws and the legalization of the drug for medicinal purposes in 23 states and for recreational purposes in four states, plus D.C.
A 2014 roadside survey conducted in Washington state (which has legalized marijuana for recreational use) found that 44 percent of drivers conceded they had driven within two hours of using marijuana.
The GHSA report details the fact that there are literally hundreds of different substances that can impair a driver, and they can be more difficult to detect than alcohol. Criminal cases can be more difficult to prosecute and civil cases can be tougher to pursue. It’s not that driving under the influence of drugs is any better than driving drunk, but alcohol tends to be easier to detect and therefore the cases are more straightforward.
Although drugs may affect different people in different ways, they are by no means safe for motorists. The GHSA report recommends state policy makers assess each state’s drugged driving issues, build partnerships with stakeholders and create a strategic drugged driving plan that includes a proactive approach with regard to laws, training, education and data systems.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Drug- Impaired Driving: A Guide for What States Can Do, October 2015, Governors’ Highway Safety Association
Wake paramedic charged with DWI after off-duty crash, Sept. 17, 2015, By Ron Gallagher, Raleigh News & Observer
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