Feds: Watch out for drivers high on drugs

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009; 1:32 PM

As you idled at that busy intersection Saturday night, there's a pretty good chance another driver waiting for the light to change was high on illegal drugs.

About 11 percent of motorists are high on the weekend, and the number creeps up past 16 percent once night falls on Friday and Saturday, according to federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and a national roadside survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That's why Kerlikowske joined the usual cast of characters Monday as law enforcement officials issued their annual warning that police dragnets will be deployed to snare drunk -- and drugged -- drivers during the holiday season.

"Drugs are the number one cause of accidental death in this country," said Kerlikowske, flanked by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

The drugged-while-driving statistics have been cast in high relief with the steady decline in the number of traffic fatalities caused by drunk driving.

"Drugs impair perception, judgment, motor skills and memory. These effects can be dangerously magnified when drugs are consumed with alcohol, even in cases where a driver's blood alcohol level is below legal limits," Kerlikowske said.

The number of fatalities caused by drunk drivers declined by 7 percent last year compared with 2007, according to the bottom line in a state-by-state comparison that LaHood distributed Monday. All but seven states -- Colorado, Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Kansas and New Hampshire -- experienced a drop. The District had a 43 percent decline (from 16 to 9); Maryland was down 15 percent (178 to 152); and Virginia dropped almost 3 percent (303 to 294).

The overall number of traffic fatalities also went down last year, according to data compiled by NHTSA, as rising unemployment and high gas prices reduced the number of drivers on the road.

Chuck Hurley, chief executive for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, looked on as Lanier and the federal officials warned that impaired drivers will be handcuffed and prosecuted if they get nabbed in the weeks ahead.

The holiday checkpoints and other police efforts might result in increased arrests, Hurley said, but many of those drivers could get off the hook.

"The message still is, too often, that if you have a good lawyer you can get off," he said. "Law enforcement is doing its job, but the courts are still letting drunks go regularly."

The national holiday enforcement effort has a budget of more than $7 million to pay for TV and radio advertising that will air from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3.

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