Study: More fatal crashes in state involve drugs


A new study conducted by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute shows that more fatal vehicle crashes result from drug-impaired drivers than drunken drivers in Indiana.

Among drivers killed in fatal collisions that had reported drug test results, 45% tested positive for one or more drugs compared to just 38.4% for alcohol-impaired drivers. Among drivers who survived fatal collisions that reported drug test results, 35.3% tested positive for one or more drugs compared to just 9.1% for alcohol-impaired drivers.

The data continues a trend of more drug-impaired drivers than drunken drivers. In 2017, 90 drivers killed in fatal crashes in the state tested positive for one or more drugs with 69 alcohol-impaired drivers based on blood alcohol content test results. In 2016, 83 drivers killed in fatal crashes tested positive for one or more drugs compared to 68 who were alcohol-impaired.

“Its difficult to assign specific causes but there’s been a lot of awareness and highly visible traffic enforcement around alcohol-impaired driving for decades now,” said Will Wingfield, communications director at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, the agency that commissioned the report. “I think that drug-impaired driving is something that has really gotten a lot of focus only recently.”

The results on drugged driving are not only from illegal drugs. Many prescriptions come with warnings about operating heavy machinery and Wingfield said cars should be the first thing people think about when they see heavy machinery listed, not just bulldozers and tractors.

“Another problem we find is over-the-counter medications being mixed with alcohol,” he said. “Very often we find drivers that have multiple substances in their system interacting with one another.”

Indiana law requires law enforcement officers to offer a portable breath test or chemical test to any person who the officer has reason to believe operated a vehicle that was involved in a fatal accident or an accident involving serious bodily injury.

Wingfield said it’s important to note that the law on impaired driving has not changed. It is still illegal in all 50 states to drive while impaired by any substance.

States like Colorado, where popular drugs like recreational marijuana are legal, face many obstacles when it comes to dealing with drivers under the influence of drugs.

Drivers with 5 nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in their blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence under Colorado law, however law enforcement officers largely base arrests on observed impairment because there is no roadside device to detect THC.

Wingfield said drug- and alcohol-impaired driving is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

“When we are looking at alcohol, we can see from a numeric basis those who are .08 or higher,” he said. “With the drug numbers we are looking at, those are drug-positive tests.”

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute manages the Drug Recognition Expert program in the state, which trains law enforcement officers to identify people whose driving is impaired by things other than alcohol.

There are 240 law enforcement officers across the state who are DREs according to Wingfield, a nearly 100 officer increase from 2014 when they had 146 DRE officers around the state.

Jasper Police Chief Nathan Schmitt said he was unsure if drug-involved accidents occur more often than alcohol-impaired ones in Jasper, but he has seen an increase in drug-impaired drivers since he began working at the department in 2001.

Schmitt said that although they don’t have any drug recognition experts on staff, they conduct a standardized field sobriety test to determine if someone is impaired. Once they can determine someone is impaired by those tests, they take them to the hospital for a blood draw.

“Anytime we make a traffic stop, then we are looking for something out of the normal,” he said. “We are always trying to be aware if somebody is impaired or under the influence of something.”

Schmitt believes there will be more opportunities for people to have access to drugs like marijuana now that nearby states like Illinois have legalized the drug. He said his department also stops people who are under the influence of legal drugs.

“We do run across people who have a valid prescription who are under the influence and they shouldn’t be driving,” he said. “Just because you have a valid prescription doesn’t give you the right to drive impaired.”

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