The Drugged Driving Epidemic

Sunday, June 17, 2007

More than three dozen men, women and children were hurt at a Southeast Washington this month by a driver police say was high on crack. Two days later, another allegedly drug-addicted driver crashed into a crowd of students at a bus stop in La Plata, injuring four.

These were not isolated incidents, and they raise the question of how we can get drug-impaired drivers off the streets.

If readers think the government is doing something to protect innocent lives from drugged driving, they should think again. The government response has lagged far behind the growing evidence that we face an epidemic of drugged driving.

For example:

· The federal government's 2004 U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 10.6 million Americans had driven a motor vehicle under the influence of an illegal drug or drugs during the previous year.

· Several studies have shown that 80 percent of drug users drive after having used illicit drugs and that many drive even while in the process of using the drugs.

· A recent toxicology study conducted at the University of Maryland's Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore found that 65.7 percent of injured drivers tested positive for either alcohol or commonly abused drugs. More than half (50.9 percent) tested positive for drugs other than alcohol, with over 26 percent testing positive for marijuana. Alcohol was detected in 30.6 percent of the drivers.

Despite this evidence that driving under the influence of illegal drugs is common, drugged drivers are far less frequently detected, prosecuted or referred for treatment than drunk drivers.

In most states, proving drugged driving requires showing that an illegal substance caused the impaired driving rather than showing less-onerous "per se" evidence, a standard requiring only that it be proved that a driver had been using drugs when he or she got behind the wheel. The good news is that 15 states, including Virginia, have recently passed legislation to make it easier to convict drugged drivers by establishing such standards for drug use. That doesn't do much for people in Anacostia and La Plata; neither the District nor Maryland has a "per se" drugged driver law.

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