Impaired driving is on the rise since the pandemic; here’s how to reverse the trend

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Americans of every age, race, and economic background are suffering increased stress and mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic. This has manifested itself, in part, in rising drug and alcohol abuse. As we now return to our usual routines and activities, many are bringing the untreated mental and emotional scars of the pandemic with them — including out onto the roads. 

Despite there being fewer drivers during the pandemic, traffic deaths in the first half of last year soared to the highest rate in 15 years. According to available government data, drunk driving remains the leading cause of traffic fatalities in the U.S., causing at least one death every hour, but recent studies also show an increase in the presence of other drugs in drivers, including marijuana, opioids, and benzodiazepine — sometimes combined with alcohol and other drugs. If we don’t develop a plan to stop the carnage, we’re likely to see a steady uptick in DWI-related fatalities in the years ahead. 

This issue is personal for me. In 2013, a driver of a logging truck who was high on THC and driving on a suspended license barreled through a red light and hit my parents’ car. The impact killed my father, Tom, instantly. My sister and I waited in anguish as my mother, Barbara, struggled to stay alive; she died three days later. My parents’ golden years were cut short by this violent and preventable act, and I’ve dedicated my life since then to preventing other families from experiencing the same pain. 

As we mark Alcohol Responsibility Month, we should take an opportunity to jumpstart the conversation on all forms of impaired driving, including those involving multiple substances. When a driver is under the influence of more than one substance, the risk of a deadly crash increases exponentially rather than linearly. This issue has become more pressing over the past decade, as trends such as medicinal cannabis use, recreational cannabis use and opioid abuse have risen. 

Since 2000, the percentage of motor vehicle fatalities involving THC has more than doubled from nine percent to about 22 percent. But the reality could be even higher. Many crashes involving drugs go undetected because, once a driver fails a breathalyzer for alcohol, the police often stop testing for additional substances. This leads to vast underreporting and misunderstanding of the challenges we face. 

Studies back this up. In 2017, the Orange County Crime Lab began testing all blood samples in DUI cases for the presence of drugs, irrespective of the BAC level, with the goal of collecting better impaired driving data. The most recent data reveal that impairing drugs were detected in 36 percent of samples where the BAC was .08 or greater, a significantly higher percentage of multiple impairment than previously thought. 

This data underscores the need to test for both drugs and alcohol to better identify these dangerous drivers and ensure they are sentenced, treated, and rehabilitated. 

Many people, even in law enforcement, continue to believe that no reliable field test exists for detecting drugs the way a breathalyzer detects alcohol, but this isn’t true. Oral fluid tests identify the presence of the most common categories of drugs and are easy to administer, with quick results and short detection windows that capture only recent drug use. More states, such as Michigan and Alabama, have or are beginning to implement oral fluid programs, but these need to be adopted nationwide. 

In addition to increased testing, we should conduct additional specialized training for law enforcement, and we should deploy technology and data collection tools that make their jobs easier. For example, an app designed by the University of Albany allows law enforcement Drug Recognition Experts to enter the DRE evaluation data on impaired driving so that they can plan patrols at times and in places where violations are most prevalent.

Finally, we need to regain control of the mental health and substance abuse problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Destigmatizing and talking openly about these challenges are the keys to helping impacted individuals recover — before they put their own lives or the lives of other innocent people at risk. 

I know the pain that impaired driving can cause far better than I wish I did, and more than 10,000 families every year are forced to learn it, too. Impaired driving from alcohol, drugs, or both is on the rise — and the aftereffects of the COVID shutdowns risk pushing it to epidemic levels. The time to intervene is now. With better detection, enforcement, and treatment, we can not only stop the trend, but begin to reverse it. 

Brian Swift is the national spokesperson for the National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving (NASID), a coalition established by Responsibility.org.

Tags addiction treatment alcohol consumption coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 pandemic Driving under the influence Drug testing Drunk driving impaired driving increase in substance abuse legalized marijuana legalized pot Opioid epidemic recovery Recreational drug use Substance abuse THC Tom traffic deaths

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