Sheriff’s Department DUI checkpoint. Image courtesy San Diego Sheriff

Dr. Roneet Lev and Matilda Casas

A spate of suspected drugged drivers made news in San Diego County as 2015 began.

A North County driver suffered a broken back when his car was hit. A high-speed chase through San Marcos ended with a man in custody. A woman pleaded guilty to manslaughter after a fatal crash in University City. An 18-year-old faces felony charges after a wreck in Escondido left his passenger with neck injuries. And a DUI checkpoint off State Route 78 had two drugged-driving arrests.

Dr. Roneet Lev

But drugged driving doesn’t always make headlines and it’s not new.

A 2012 roadside drug survey by the Office of Traffic Safety tested the saliva of more than 1,000 nighttime drivers around California. One out of seven drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could cause impairment. Marijuana and alcohol virtually tied for the most positive drug test results (over 7 percent of all drivers tested positive for each). Prescription drugs and illicit drugs were each responsible for nearly five percent of the positive tests. Many drivers tested positive for multiple drugs.

So we know drugged drivers are getting behind the wheel.

In California it’s illegal to drive under the influence of any substance that causes mental or physical impairment and leaves you unable to drive safely,  this includes prescription medication, which if not used properly, can adversely affect your driving.

There are a number of factors contributing to increased incidence of drugged driving that includes the national prescription drug pandemic, ever-stronger marijuana products, pot legalization in other states, and reduced penalties for drug offenders under Proposition 47.

Law enforcement has the tools to get drugged drivers off the roadways. For example, a Drug Recognition Expert, or DRE, receives specialized training that enhances the officer’s skills in identifying intoxication from drugs ranging from methamphetamine to prescription drugs to marijuana during the standardized field sobriety test. But there just are not enough DREs in San Diego County and we need more of them to keep our roadways safe.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the compound that results in the marijuana “high.” Today’s pot is more potent and more likely to cause impairment. Drivers under the influence of THC experience slower reaction times, inability to stay in lanes, sleepiness, short-term memory loss, lack of coordination and loss of multi-tasking skills. California currently has no legal limit for the presence of THC in a driver’s blood.

The use of any illicit drug or medication can cause impaired driving. Prescription drugs might help with medical conditions, but can also affect driving skills. And doctors emphasize that most medications should not be mixed with alcohol, which is especially true for anyone operating a vehicle.

Individuals are often unaware of the side effects of certain drugs which make it hard for the public or a jury to understand how the use of these substances results in drugged-driving charges.

Testimony from a DRE-certified officer strengthens the case against a drugged driver. That expert testimony adds validity to blood or saliva tests, field sobriety tests and other evidence, particularly in the case of a crash or fatality.  Impaired drivers need to be accountable for their actions.

Families need to talk. Newly licensed drivers need to hear how drugs can interact with alcohol — even one glass of beer or wine.

Driving safety programs need more information about drugged driving that spans the age spectrum.

The public and elected officials need to support a local DRE training and certification process for all local law enforcement agencies.  It’s the first, best step in countering the rising tide of drugged-driving tragedies.

Dr. Roneet Lev is director of operations for the Scripps Mercy Hospital Emergency Department and chair of the San Diego County Rx Drug Abuse Medical Task Force. Matilda Casas is a supervising probation officer with the County of San Diego who serves on the DUI enforcement unit.

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