Do Drugged Drivers Cause More Traffic Deaths than Drunk Drivers?

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

The increase in DUI of drugs has led some to ask whether drugged drivers cause more fatal traffic collisions than drunk drivers. At least according to a new study, the answer is yes.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, a nonprofit funded by alcohol distillers, released a report in April of this year that found in 2015, drivers killed in vehicle collisions were more likely to be under the influence of drugs than alcohol. This was the first recorded time where it is suggested that drugged driving is responsible for more traffic fatalities than drunk driving.

“Drug impaired driving is increasing,” said Jim Hedlund a private consultant from Ithaca, New York who conducted the study for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “We have new data that show drugs are more prevalent to drivers than alcohol is for the first time.”

The study showed that 43 percent of drivers tested in fatal vehicle collisions in the United States had used either a legal or illegal drug. According to the study, 37 percent of drivers tested had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Marijuana was the most common drug detected. 9.3 percent of drivers who had their blood tested had amphetamines in their system and in many cases, drivers had multiple drugs in their system.

While the result of the study may be accurate, those who are suggesting that the results indicate that drugged driving causes more traffic fatalities than drunk driving is somewhat misleading.

The presence of alcohol in a person’s system does not necessarily mean that they are under the influence. However, the legislature has created a per se blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 because science has shown that the mental or physical abilities of those with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 are likely so impaired that they can no longer operate a vehicle with the caution of a sober person, using ordinary case, under similar circumstances.

Thus, while the study only tested whether drivers had a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or higher and not actual impairment, we know that if the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, they were also likely impaired.

Therefore, to conclude that more drugged drivers cause fatal vehicle collisions than drunk drivers is inaccurate. In other words, we cannot compare driving statistics of those with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent and those with drugs in their system.

Furthermore, drugs such as marijuana can stay in a person’s system for far longer than alcohol, sometimes for up to weeks at a time. Therefore, the likelihood of drugs being present in a person’s system, whether they used recently or not, is far higher than the likelihood of alcohol being present in a person’s system.

For once, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and I actually agree on something.

Like myself, MADD officials questioned the methodology of the results, noting that there is no scientifically agreed level of impairment with drugs such as marijuana.

Another of MADD’s concerns is that the study is leading people to believe that the country is doing better than we have been in terms of drunk driving.

“There is no way you can say drugs have overtaken alcohol as the biggest killer on the highway,” said J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at MADD. “The data is not anywhere close to being in a way that would suggest that … We’re doing a lot of good things on drunk driving, but the public needs to understand this problem is not solved.”

According to NORML, with whom I tend to agree, the study merely reflects the increased detection of drugs and alcohol, but does not reflect any direct connection to fatal vehicle collisions.

 

 

Share

California DWI – Driving While Addicted

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Believe it or not, it is a crime in California to drive while being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Lesser known California Vehicle Code section 23152(c) provides: “It is unlawful for any person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

You may be asking yourself the same thing I did when I first read it. Huh?

The “huh?” was the reactionary expression of two other questions: What’s the purpose? And who is an addict?

In the 1965 case of People v. O’Neil, the California Supreme Court addressed both of these issues by looking at the legislative intent of 23152(c). The court determined that “when an individual has reached the point that his body reacts physically to the termination of drug administration, he has become ‘addicted’ within the meaning and purpose of [23152(c)]. Although physical dependency or the abstinence syndrome is but one of the characteristics of addiction, it is of crucial import in light of the purpose of [23152(c)] since it renders the individual a potential danger on the highway.”

While the court focused on the theory that an addict going through withdrawals can pose a risk to the roads, it said that a person need not be going through withdrawals to be arrested, charged, and convicted of California’s driving while addicted law.

“The prosecution need not prove that the individual was actually in a state of withdrawal while driving the vehicle. The prosecution’s burden is to show (1) that the defendant has become ‘emotionally dependent’ on the drug in the sense that he experiences a compulsive need to continue its use, (2) that he has developed a ‘tolerance’ to its effects and hence requires larger and more potent doses, and (3) that he has become ‘physically dependent’ so as to suffer withdrawal symptoms if he is deprived of his dosage.”

So let’s get this straight. You can be charged with a crime if you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol even if you’re not intoxicated or you’re not going through withdrawals. So then that begs the question: What’s the point?

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court has yet to answer that question.

Fortunately, however, the law does not apply to those who are participating in a narcotic treatment program.

Well it’s nice to know that the law only protects those who are receiving treatment for their disease, but not those who aren’t.

Share

Does Presence of Marijuana in Blood Constitute Drunk Driving?

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

It is, of course, against the law to driver under the influence of marijuana (sometimes called "stoned driving"). In most cases, a blood sample will be drawn and analyzed to provide evidence of impariment. And as I've discussed in previous posts, there are nearly insurmountable problems law enforcement and prosecutors have with this.  See, for example, Identifying and Proving DUI Marijuana ("Stoned Driving"), Driving + Traces of Marijuana = DUI, How Accurate is Detection and Evidence of Drugged Driving? and DUI Marijuana: Does Marijuana Impair Driving?     

Quite simply, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to prove that the presence of given levels of marijuana in the blood proves that the suspect was impaired when driving.  First, there is very little agreement on how much marijuana it takes to impair a driver's physical and mental faculties.  Second, it is difficult to determine from blood tests what the active levels were at the time of driving. It is a scientific fact that inactive metabolites of marijuana remain in the bloodstream for weeks.  

But, of course, there is a simple solution — similar to one created a few years ago which made it easier to convict citizens accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol.  Fqced with difficulties in proving alcohol impairment, the various states simply passed so-called "per se" laws — laws which made having .08% of alcohol in the blood while driving a crime.  Impairment was no longer an issue to be proven; the crime was simply having the alcohol in your blood.  And the conviction rates increased dramatically.  

Today, a similar approach is being used by a growing number of states:  making the mere presence of marijuana in the blood while driving a crime — regardless of whether it had any effect.

Some courts, however, are beginning to have concerns about this "per se" approach:


Presence of THC Metabolite in Blood Does Not Prove Impaired Driving , Arizona Supreme Court Finds

Phoenix, AZ  – Arizonans who smoke marijuana can’t be charged with driving while impaired absent actual evidence they are affected by the drug, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The justices rejected arguments by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that a motorist whose blood contains a slight amount of a certain metabolite of marijuana can be presumed to be driving illegally because he or she is impaired, saying medical evidence shows that’s not the case.

The ruling most immediately affects the 40,000-plus Arizonans who are legal medical marijuana users. It means they will not be effectively banned from driving, given how long the metabolite, carboxy-THC, remains in the blood.

It also provides legal protection against impaired-driving charges for anyone else who drives and has used marijuana in the last 30 days — legal or otherwise — as well as provides a shield for those who might be visiting from Washington or Colorado, where recreational use of the drug is legal.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Tuesday’s ruling will result in roads that are less safe. He said if courts will not accept carboxy-THC readings as evidence of impairment, then there is no way of knowing who is really “high” and who is not…


A breath of fresh air in the ongoing hysteria of MADD's "War on Drunk Driving"…
 

Share

California Legislature Kills Zero-Tolerance Marijuana DUI Law

Monday, May 12th, 2014

In early April, I wrote about the terrible idea that was AB 2500.

Introduced by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, the original bill would have changed California’s current DUI law making it unlawful for a person to drive with any detectable amount of marijuana in the system. The legislation was later amended to set a limit of two nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. The law also sought to make it illegal to drive with any trace of any other controlled substance in the system.

Whew! You can all let out a collective sigh of relief because the proposed law was killed in the California legislature.

AB 2500 was defeated by the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-2.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but I simply can’t say it enough. We cannot punish sober drivers merely because they may have smoked marijuana a day, a month, or a week ago.

Unlike alcohol, THC stays in a user’s system for up to weeks at a time even though the intoxicating effects of the marijuana may only last a couple of hours. And unlike the established relationship between blood-alcohol levels and impairment, THC in the blood does not necessarily correlate to impairment. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said, “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects.”

In late April, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law similar to California’s proposed AB 2500, and rightly so.

Arizona’s high court reaffirmed the trial court’s correct decision to toss the case of Hrach Shilgevorkyan who had been arrested for driving under the influence after a blood test detected the presence of marijuana.

“For example, at oral argument the State acknowledged that, under its reading of the statute, if a metabolite could be detected five years after ingesting a proscribed drug, a driver who tested positive for trace elements of a non-impairing substance could be prosecuted,” said the court in supporting its opinion.

The Court went on to conclude, "Because the legislature intended to prevent impaired driving, we hold that the 'metabolite' reference in [the law] is limited to any of a proscribed substance's metabolites that are capable of causing impairment . . . Drivers cannot be convicted of the . . . offense based merely on the presence of a non-impairing metabolite that may reflect the prior usage of marijuana.”

Let’s hope the California Supreme Court never has to make such an obvious decision.

But you just never know. Frazier’s response to his bill’s failure? “I have eleven more years” to continue working on the bill.

Share

California Assemblyman Proposes Marijuana Zero-Tolerance DUI Standard

Friday, April 11th, 2014

We recently referred you to an American Bar Association Journal article in which Lawrence Taylor was interviewed about the difficulties of correlating traces of marijuana in the blood and intoxication. We also mentioned the use of zero-tolerance laws for marijuana by some states as a way to address issue. It seems that one California assemblyman looks to include California in that list of zero-tolerance states.

Currently, for a person to be convicted of a California marijuana DUI, it must be proven that they were “under the influence.” A person is under the influence when his or her physical or mental abilities are impaired to such a degree that he or she no longer has the ability to drive a vehicle with the caution characteristic of a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier recently introduced AB 2500. The bill, if passed, would change California’s current DUI law making it unlawful for a person to drive with any detectable amount of marijuana in the system. The law also seeks to make it illegal to drive with any trace of any other controlled substance in the system.

The proposed language of the law would read:

“It is unlawful for a person to drive a vehicle if his or her blood contains any detectable amount of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol of marijuana or any other drug classified in Schedule I, II, III, or IV under the California Uniform Substances Act (Division 10 (commencing with Section 11000) of the Health and Safety Code).”

The legislature rejected a similar bill introduced last year by Senator Lou Correa. Rightly so. Let’s hope they do the same to AB 2500.

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can remain in a person’s blood for up to weeks and longer after marijuana use, and well beyond the point at which a person cannot safely operate a vehicle. That doesn’t matter to those who support the proposed law. It seems they would be okay with punishing perfectly sober drivers simply because they ingested marijuana at some point in the last several weeks.

Share