Turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or go online and you'll find the pharmaceutical industry is making a killing pushing pills. There are pills to wake you up, calm you down, get you excited, lower your blood pressure, ease your hypertension, and get you back to sleep again. While many of these prescription drugs do help with certain ailments, the side effects can be deadly when someone affected by these powerful drugs tries to drive. Many of these drugs cause a reduction in mental alertness and physical responsiveness, both of which are necessary to safely operate a motor vehicle.
|An accident caused by a drugged driver.|
How commonplace is driving while drugged? According the the National Highway and Safety Administration's 2007 National Roadside Survey, more than 16 percent of weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter medication.
Lately more attention has been given to drugs other than alcohol, as law enforcement has begun to recognize the hazards it poses to traffic safety.
What Makes Drugged Driving Hazardous?
Drugs acting on the brain can alter perception, cognition, attention, balance, coordination, reaction time, and other faculties required for safe driving. The effects of specific drugs of abuse differ depending on their mechanisms of action, the amount consumed, the history of the user, and other factors.
Many medications (e.g., benzodiazepines and opiate analgesics) act on systems in the brain that could impair driving ability. In fact, many prescription drugs come with warnings against the operation of machinery -- including motor vehicles -- for a specified period of time after use. When prescription drugs are taken without medical supervision (i.e., when abused), impaired driving and other harmful reactions result.
Police and Highway Patrol personnel are trained to spot, test and arrest persons under the influence of alcohol, but people affected by prescription drugs are more difficult to prosecute. Breathalyzer tests will only show if the person has been drinking, even though the motorist's ability to drive is clearly compromised. With defense lawyers quick to point out that many of these drivers are taking legal medication, in proper doses that are prescribed by a doctor, police are reluctant to pursue punishment due to the ambiguity of the law.
Canada Gets Tough
Yet some countries are getting tougher. In 2008, Canada passed a drugged driving law which makes it illegal for drivers to drive under the influence of drugs, legal or not.
Prior to this legislation, police were allowed to ask drivers for a urine, blood or saliva sample if they were suspected of being under the influence of drugs. However, officers had to inform drivers that they were not obligated to take the test.
“There was no monitoring in place for us to make this demand at all,” said Toronto Police Sgt. Tim Burrows, “New ground has been broken.”
Under this new legislation, drivers suspected of drug use are taken to traffic services and tested by a specially trained drug recognition expert. The test involves looking at indicators such as pupil size, blood pressure and the ability of the driver to multi-task. The final part of the test is a bodily fluid swab test.
Those caught driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol will face at least a $1,000 fine for a first offense, a minimum of 30 days in jail for a second offense and 120 days in jail if they are caught a third time.
In the U.S., many states are starting to pass 'per se' laws, making it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if there is any detectable level of a prohibited drug, or its metabolites, in the driver's blood. Other state laws define "drugged driving" as driving when a drug "renders the driver incapable of driving safely" or "causes the driver to be impaired."
But, persuading a jury to convict someone of drugged driving is difficult, as it doesn't have the stigma that drunken driving has, thanks to the efforts of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Because most people on the jury will also likely be taking prescription drugs for some ailment," said Douglas Gansler, the attorney general in Maryland, "whether it's Lipitor or allergy pills or whatever it might be, they might think, 'I don't want that to become criminal.'"
Sources: DrugFreeWorkplace.com, The New York Times, National Highway and Safety Administration.