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Congress defining 'drugged driving'

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Citing estimates that 11 million people sometimes drive under the influence of illegal drugs, a growing chorus in Congress wants the government to do something about it.

The states are wary.

Eight states now have specific laws on "drugged driving," but their statutes are vague. None specifies an equivalent level to the 0.08 percent blood content that Congress established as the legal level for alcohol impairment.

That's partly because there's no roadside test to detect the presence of drugs in the body -- no handy "breathalyzer" as there is for alcohol. And even if blood or urine samples taken at a hospital test positive for drugs, there's no standard for how high is too high to drive.

"Zero tolerance" is the level some lawmakers want Congress to establish. A motorist found to have any controlled substance in his or her system would be considered unlawfully impaired.

"Everyone who drives is affected by this," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, citing a report last September by the Department of Health and Human Services estimating that during the previous year nearly 11 million people drove at one time or another under the influence of drugs. The same survey said three times as many people -- 33.5 million -- drove under the influence of alcohol in 2002.

Portman introduced a bill last week that would create a model drug-impaired driving law for states to adopt to address what proponents say is a monumental problem that has gone largely ignored.

Eight states already have drug-impairment laws, according to the American Prosecutors Research Institute. They are Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Utah.

"In every state of the country it's illegal for someone to drive under the influence of any drug or substance that may cause them to be impaired," said John Bobo, director of the National Traffic Law Center at APRI. But in these eight states, it is "per-se illegal" to have any detectable amount of a controlled substance in your system.

Carrots and sticks

Under Portman's proposal, states that enact similar laws defining impaired as any detectable amount of drugs in a blood or urine sample would get money for training police and prosecutors and for driver counseling. They would also get grants to research field tests to measure motorists' drug levels.

Rather than offering a carrot, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., prefers the stick approach. His bill would make states that don't enact drug-impaired driving laws forfeit 1 percent of their annual federal highway funds to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The amount forfeited would double each year up to 50 percent.

States are wary of both approaches, recalling that when incentives were not enough to persuade some of them to adopt the 0.08 blood alcohol limit for drunken driving, Congress in 2000 directed that up to 6 percent of their federal highway funds be taken away. Recalcitrant state legislatures fell quickly into line.

"We believe that as a basic principle states need to enact laws that meet their own needs," said Cheye Calvo, a transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies, goes further, advising its members not to adopt drug-impaired driving laws at all for the time being.

"There has been little to no evaluation as to their effectiveness," said spokesman Jonathan Adkins. "Most drivers who are drug impaired are also alcohol-impaired, so police "get 'em" that way."

Alcohol was linked to 41 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2002, resulting in 17,419 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While there are no reliable statistics for how often drugs are involved in fatal traffic accidents -- primarily because drivers are often only tested for drunkenness -- "we think it's about 10 to 20 percent," said Jeff Michael, director of the office of impaired driving at NHTSA. "There's a good bit of overlap with alcohol."

Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her group supports efforts to curb drug-impaired driving. But she cautioned it is difficult to set an across-the-board standard for all illegal drugs when they may affect driving differently -- or not at all.

"There needs to be more research," Hamilton said.


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