More Drivers Testing Positive for Pot…

CDOT Drugged driving 1Several news reports have been published recently citing an apparent increase drivers testing positive for marijuana in Washington State since it was legalized in January.

According to Reuters:

In the first six months with pot legal in the state, 745 drivers stopped by police tested positive for the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, in their blood, the data show.

Over half of those were over the state’s new legal limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

By contrast, in each of the last two full years, about 1,000 drivers who were pulled over tested positive for THC.

The increase comes despite the fact that recreational-use pot stores will not open in Washington state until next year.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said the findings, while preliminary, indicate more people may be driving impaired than was the case before Washington and Colorado in January became the first states to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Whether people are driving under the influence of pot, alcohol or prescription drugs, Calkins said, “It all comes back to a bad decision to drive while impaired.”

Interestingly, the number of people pulled over by the State Patrol (on suspicion of driving under the influence of EITHER drugs or alcohol) during the same time period was roughly the same as each of two prior years (they’re not pulling more people over, but more have been testing positive).

rx-for-dui

A New York Daily News article that covers the situation in Washington State mentioned the following:

Washington State Patrol says it found THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, in the bloodstream of 745 drivers pulled over this year.

That’s a nine percentage point increase from where we were last year at this time, Sgt. Jason Hicks explained.

“It was previously illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana and it remains illegal,” Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told the Daily News.

drugged driving 2

“One for the road” – Alcohol Impairment

NOTE: This article is part of a series investigating the definition of “impaired driving” as it occurs in society, traffic safety and driver safety professional networks.

Of the most common ways a driver can impair their own ability to drive is to choose to consume alcohol before getting behind the wheel.  In fact, this is a world-wide phenomenon.  According to the Global Road Safety Partnership (Link),

“In high-income countries about 20% of fatally injured drivers have excess alcohol in their blood, while in some low- and middle-income countries these figures may be up to 69%.” (from “Drinking and Driving: an international good practice manual”)

Here in the USA, we have an annual fatality rate of roughly 32% from drinking and driving.  Granted this is much improved since the 1970’s when it was as high as 50% (and even 40% as recently as 2003 per National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – NHTSA) These reductions were due largely to:

  • Changes in laws
  • Aggressive enforcement
  • Community involvement
  • Public awareness
  • Educational programs targeting the youth of our country

Unfortunately, as a nation, we seem to have hit a plateau over the past decade where further declines have been halted.

It’s a sobering reality to contemplate that we continue to record an alcohol fueled traffic fatality every 51 minutes despite our best efforts to curb these behaviors.

Patterns of Deep Seated Behavior?

In reviewing recent research and statistics on alcohol and driving, we find that out of 1.5 million arrests of impaired drivers each year, about a full third are repeat offenders.  Additionally, the Insurance Information Institute issued an update in September showing that first-time offenders are very likely to have driven drunk before their first arrest.  Further, studies suggest that on average, one arrest is made for every 88 instances of driving over the legal limit; therefore we have to wonder if the average first-timer has driven drunk 80+ times before getting caught. (Link to source)

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) reminds us that while alcohol related crashes happen at all hours, they peak at night and are more common on weekends than on weekdays.  This suggests a link between parties and crashing on the way home, but it’s not the whole picture.  Alcohol still plays a role at all other times on the calendar and clock.

When we combine the fact that most “drunk drivers” have a pattern of drinking and driving, and that while most crash on weekends, the choice to get behind the wheel while buzzed is primarily a judgment call, not one of convenience, conscience or mere location (i.e. the behavior of the weekend partier carries that judgment to the business vehicle during the week even if the alcohol is left behind).

Latest Trending – Binge Drinking

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that most alcohol-impaired drivers binge drink.  Binge drinking is a behavior where large quantities of alcohol are consumed in a short period of time with the purpose of becoming drunk as quickly as possible.

CDC further indicates that most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics in general.  They may be ordinary people who want to escape their normal routine, “have fun” or simply “get blitzed.”  Consider the following statistics from a January 2012 report:

  • More than half of the alcohol adults drink is consumed while binge drinking.
  • Age group with most binge drinkers: 18-34 years
  • Age group that binge drinks most often: 65+ years
  • Income group with most binge drinkers: more than $75,000
  • Income group that binge drinks the most often and drinks most per binge: less than $25,000

Binge drinking may be a sign that:  the person is unable to cope with other stressors in their life, it could affect more than just driving (i.e. job performance, workers comp injuries, customer complaints, etc.).  All in all, this may also signal a need for the employee to take advantage of an Employee Assistance Program if one is available to them.

Wrong Way Crashes and Links to Alcohol Impairment

On December 11, 2012, an Associated Press article was released which stated:

“Hundreds of people are killed each a year when drivers turn the wrong-way into the face of oncoming traffic on high-speed highways, and a majority of the crashes involves drivers with blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, a federal accident researcher said Tuesday.

“The board’s study analyzed data from 1,566 crashes from 2004 to 2009, as well as nine wrong way collisions NTSB directly investigated. In 59 percent of the accidents, wrong-way drivers had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, researchers said. In another 10 percent of the crashes, drivers had alcohol levels between .08 and .14. The limit in most instances is .08.”

“Often the chain of events begins with drivers entering an exit ramp in the wrong direction, making a U-turn on the mainline of a highway or using an emergency turnaround through a median, investigators said.”

“To address the problem, the board is considering recommending all states require convicted first-time drunken-driving offenders use ignition interlock devices that test their breath for alcohol concentration in order to drive. The devices, mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard, prevent the engine from starting if the driver’s alcohol concentration is too high. Seventeen states already have such a requirement.”

Legal “Profiling”

In California, driver abstracts (aka motor vehicle reports or driver violation histories) that get issued to insurers automatically include any Driving Under the Influence (DUI) violations from the past ten years.  This was done to ensure that a past recipient of a DUI conviction would not qualify for a “good driver discount.”  Even though other types of violations can “fall off” or be “grandfathered”, DUIs are a much more indelible mark on a driver’s record.

From an employer’s perspective, there is a risk in voluntarily handing keys to a driver who has previously been convicted because of “negligent supervision”, “negligent entrustment” and similar legal theories.  Of course, employers might provide keys to company equipment if required by court order, if an “interlock ignition” system is installed or if any license restrictions allow commuting to the worksite (and don’t require the transport of passengers or other riders).

Commercial Drivers and Alcohol

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has published regulations affecting drivers who hold a Commercial Drivers License (CDL).  Initially, a substance abuse testing program was launched in 1989 to cover certain controlled substances, but expanded in 1994 to include alcohol testing requirements.

The testing, along with enforcement initiatives and educational factors have made an impact.  In 1990, 2.8% of all drivers of heavy trucks who died in crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or greater.  By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 1.8%.  This compares favorably to drivers of passenger cars:  1990 = 28.9% and 2010 = 23.2% (these percentages are also similar to drivers of light-duty trucks).  This information is from the “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2010” (FMCSA-RRA-12-023, August 2012)

Here are some highlights from the FMCSA’s own website:  http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/drug/engtesting.htm

  1. Who do these rules apply to (besides CDL holders, specifically)?
    1. Examples of drivers and employers that are subject to these rules are (the following does not represent a complete listing):
      1. Anyone who owns or leases commercial motor vehicles
      2. Anyone who assigns drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles
      3. Federal, State, and local governments
      4. For-Hire Motor Carriers
      5. Private Motor Carriers
      6. Civic Organizations (Disabled Veteran Transport, Boy/Girl Scouts, etc.)
      7. Churches
  2. WHAT ALCOHOL USE IS PROHIBITED?
    1. Alcohol is a legal substance; therefore, the rules define specific prohibited alcohol-related conduct. Performance of safety-sensitive functions is prohibited:
      1. While using alcohol.
      2. While having a breath alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or greater as indicated by an alcohol breath test.
      3. Within four hours after using alcohol.
    2. In addition, refusing to submit to an alcohol test or using alcohol within eight hours after an accident or until tested (for drivers required to be tested) are prohibited.
  3. WHAT ALCOHOL TESTS ARE REQUIRED?
    1. The following alcohol tests are required:
      1. Post-accident – conducted after accidents on drivers whose performance could have contributed to the accident (as determined by a citation for a moving traffic violation) and for all fatal accidents even if the driver is not cited for a moving traffic violation.
      2. Reasonable suspicion – conducted when a trained supervisor or company official observes behavior or appearance that is characteristic of alcohol misuse.
      3. Random – conducted on a random unannounced basis just before, during, or just after performance of safety-sensitive functions.
      4. Return-to-duty and follow-up – conducted when an individual who has violated the prohibited alcohol conduct standards returns to performing safety-sensitive duties. Follow-up tests are unannounced. At least 6 tests must be conducted in the first 12 months after a driver returns to duty. Follow-up testing may be extended for up to 60 months following return to duty.

SUMMARY

The problem of drinking and driving is a significant contributor to road deaths despite improving results over the past four decades.  While we never make light of the emerging threat of electronic distractions, there remains a significant difference between these two conditions:

  • Distracted drivers can drive well, but choose to ignore their duty
  • Alcohol-impaired drivers can’t drive well because they’re physically or “medically” unfit for the duty, but choose to drive anyway

In reality, neither should get behind the wheel if they’re going to impair themselves, and yet both boldly choose to endanger themselves and other drivers despite the warnings and pleadings of safety professionals and the public at large.

As a nation, we’ve called for a complete ban on hand-held cell conversations and texting-while-driving, but it feels like we haven’t (recently or as loudly) called for true zero-tolerance of drinking and driving with the same fervor.  

As an employer, consider a timely review of your policies covering drinking and driving. Perhaps its time to remind your employees of your expectations — after all, you’re also expressing genuine concern for their wellness and safety by curbing the notion that buzzed driving is somehow OK — it isn’t.

Within your own family, talk with teens and seniors, moms and dads — everyone who drives should be reminded that the choices we make have direct and significant consequences.  Calling a cab (or mom and dad) for a ride is a far better choice than hoping for the best, or feeling lucky.

Join the conversation at our Linked In discussion site or our facebook page.

SafetyFirst provides automated MVR checking/ranking services, fleet policy consulting, access to tailored telematics that actually “fit” your company and it’s unique needs.  Validated best in class for reducing collision claims among insurance carriers and world-class safety organizations in every SIC division.
 

Impaired Driving in its many forms…

Until very recently, “Impaired Driving” was often interpreted as “Drunk Driving” or “driving under the influence of alcohol”.  I think it means a lot more than that and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) agrees. According to their website, they state:

“Impaired driving is dangerous and is the cause of more than half of all car crashes. It means operating a motor vehicle while: affected by alcohol; affected by illegal or legal drugs; too sleepy; distracted, such as using a cell phone or texting; having a medical condition which affects your driving.”

Where I disagree is their inclusion of “distracted driving.”  I think they chose to include it since the driver could be suffering from “inattention blindness” where their mind is so hopelessly preoccupied that they don’t recognize traffic signals and conditions properly.

I feel that there is a fundamental difference between distracted driving and impaired driving:

  • Distracted drivers are fully capable of driving well, but choose to ignore their duty to drive properly
  • Truly impaired drivers incapable of driving well because they’re tired, drugged, drunk or ill, but choose to drive anyway

In reality, neither should get behind the wheel, and both choose to endanger themselves and other drivers. 

Driving presents a unique challenge each time we get behind the wheel.  To be ready to handle the dynamic situations we’ll encounter when driving, we ought to be in top condition. 

Our bodies and minds can be affected by a wide range of factors: being tired; being physically ill; suffering from allergies; coping with chronic physical conditions; taking over the counter medications; drinking alcohol; smoking marijuana; taking prescription medications or abusing illicit drugs.

These factors most commonly contribute to collisions by impairing the driver’s judgment and/or reaction times. 

The universal precaution for impaired driving is to avoid becoming impaired in the first place.  This may translate into getting enough sleep and eating a proper diet to avoid fatigue, getting a flu shot annually to lessen the impact of symptoms, avoiding the intake of alcohol or other “recreational” drugs such as marijuana, or asking extra questions of the doctor and pharmacist when dealing with prescribed medications for illnesses or chronic conditions. 

For regulated drivers (i.e. those subject to FMCSRs), physical or medical qualification is an important aspect of becoming and remaining qualified to drive.  For most regulated drivers, this translates to visiting the doctor for a physical once every two years (or more frequently depending on your condition and the doctor’s findings).  In some cases, a failure to meet the minimum requirements (or any discovered fraud surrounding these issues) could lead to disqualification.  On November 30, 2012, the FMCSA issued a press release (Link) stating that it had ordered a driver to cease driving “due to his failure to exercise an appropriate duty of care to the motoring public regarding his medical conditions.”

The FMCSA placed the driver out of service “…after agency investigators found serious safety concerns surrounding his medical condition and qualifications under his commercial driver’s license (CDL) issued by the State of Georgia.” 

Specifically, “…Investigators discovered that Felton failed to disclose to a medical examiner his disqualifying medical conditions, including his medications prescribed in treating those conditions.”

The news release concludes with this message;

“This case sends a clear message that we will use every tool at our disposal to identify and remove from our roads unsafe operators,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “Our agency is committed to raising the bar for commercial vehicle and driver safety.”

This month’s Ten-Minute Training Topic is on Impaired Driving and includes a driver handout, manager’s supplemental report, and a pair of slideshows to facilitate educational opportunities with drivers.  This is distributed to all of the supervisors who receive monthly summary reporting through our Safety Hotline program — in place at more than 3,800 active clients and covering about a quarter million commercial vehicles.

We’ll also be looking at individual forms of impairment more closely through our blog site over the next several weeks.

Drugged Driving Update — Recent News Stories

Since posting our article on medical marijuana, there have been several news reports about drugged driving and tragic crashes or court cases.  Here’s a quick overview:

  • June 6, 2012: http://www.khozradio.com/13817/white_county_man_sentenced_to_6_years_for_fatal_accident.html  “A White County Circuit Court judge has sentenced a man to six years in prison on a manslaughter count in connection with an accident that killed a Heber Springs woman.  Authorities say [the man’s] vehicle crossed the center line on Arkansas Highway 16 near Searcy in December 2009. Prosecutors say lab tests showed [the driver] had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system at the time of the crash.”

Taking risks with your own body isn’t the issue, it’s also taking risks with a stranger you might meet while driving.

  • http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_20418590/light-three-recent-fatal-accidents-chp-warns-drivers“Three recent fatal accidents in the county were caused by drivers under the influence of marijuana and the California Highway Patrol is urging residents to be aware of the impairing effects of the drug on driving.

    According to Santa Cruz CHP Cmdr. Matt Olson, 30 percent of all fatal collisions statewide are caused by a driver under the influence of drugs. Santa Cruz County is unfortunately ahead of that statistic, Olson said.

    A three-car crash on Highway 129 on Feb. 10 was caused by a young woman under the influence of marijuana. The accident killed the driver and seriously injured another person, Olson said.

    Last month, two men were killed in single-car accidents. Both were later determined to be under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, according to CHP. In one incident, a 35-year-old Aptos man lost control of his car and collided with a tree on Highway 1 at State Park Drive on March 18. In the other, a 21-year-old Felton man died on March 14 after his truck ran off the edge of Graham Hill Road and struck a tree.

    “These collisions are particularly tragic,” Olson said. “They each cut short the lives of young people with so much ahead of them and left behind devastated families.”  Sadly, these collisions were avoidable, he said, and CHP wants to prevent this from happening to others.

    In 2010, four of seven fatal accidents investigated in Santa Cruz County were caused by marijuana DUI, though in 2011, not one life was lost to a drug or alcohol-impaired driver. In response to the drug-impaired driving deaths in 2010, more CHP officers received Drug Recognition Expert Training. This year, every CHP officer in the county will receive Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement training to address the problem of impaired driving in the county.

    Whether illicitly or legally obtained, marijuana has a profoundly negative effect on the ability to safely drive a car, said Olson. Prescription and other illegal drugs also impair drivers.”

  • http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-04/D9U82C0O0.htm“Medical marijuana law no defense for Mich. drivers” – By ED WHITE

    “Michigan’s medical marijuana law doesn’t shield people from charges if they are caught driving after using the drug, the state appeals court ruled Wednesday in another significant decision involving the 2008 voter-approved law.

    A three-judge panel sided with the Grand Traverse County prosecutor in northern Michigan by restoring a criminal case against Rodney Koon, 50, a medical marijuana user who was stopped in 2010 for exceeding the speed limit by nearly 30 mph. He admitted smoking marijuana six hours earlier, and a blood test revealed the drug in his body.

    Michigan law has zero tolerance for drivers who show evidence of certain drugs, but more than 130,000 people have state-issued cards allowing them to use marijuana to alleviate pain and other symptoms of chronic illness.

    Two courts dismissed the charge against Koon, saying prosecutors had to show he was impaired. The appeals court, however, said the medical marijuana law “does not permit all types of medical use of marijuana under all circumstances.”

    “Driving is a particularly dangerous activity,” judges David Sawyer, Peter O’Connell and Amy Ronayne Krause wrote in the ruling. “Schedule 1 substances are considered particularly inimical to a drivers’ ability to remain in maximally safe control of their vehicles. The danger of failing to do so affects not only the driver, but anyone else in the vicinity.”

    A message seeking comment from Koon’s attorney, James Hunt, was not immediately returned. In a court filing, Hunt argued that drivers who use medical marijuana should be treated like other people who legally consume prescription drugs.

    A statewide association of Michigan prosecutors had called for the result delivered by the appeals court. There always will be some conduct that is considered legal, the group said, but only before someone gets behind the wheel of a car.

“Even texting, conduct that is otherwise legal and might even, at times, involve the communication of protected content under the First Amendment, is prohibited while operating a motor vehicle” in Michigan, prosecutors said in a court filing.

Many disputes over medical marijuana have hit the appeals court. In a major decision last year, the court said the new law doesn’t allow the sale of medical marijuana through pot shops. The case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.”

Unlike the legal alcohol limit, there are currently no toxicity standards for narcotics. That can make it tough for prosecutors handling drug-related cases.
Even if someone is arrested for being impaired, prosecutors say cases involving drugs can be difficult to try.

“Often times jurors assume, incorrectly, that prescription drugs should be treated differently. But the reality is, if they impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, they qualify for in the vehicle code section as a drug,” explains Wagner.

District Attorney Ricky Babin said Thursday there is evidence of illegal drug use by a mother driving the car in a February fatal crash on Stringer Bridge Road that led to the deaths of her two young daughters. The car…sank into Black Bayou after it left the roadway at 9:41 p.m. Feb. 21, according to a Louisiana State Police state report.  The crash report says laboratory tests of [the driver’s] blood sample turned up evidence of prescription drugs: hydrocodone, diazepam, venlafaxine and norvenlafaxine. A blood-alcohol analysis found no alcohol in her system.

Medical Marijuana & Driving Safely: Compatible or Paradox?

A recent news article titled; “In the medical marijuana age, how high is too high to drive?” introduced the idea of writing new traffic law to define legal limits for drugged driving. 

This concept was brought to light in Colorado by state Senator Steve King.  Twelve years ago Colorado legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and reportedly more than 85,000 people have been certified by the state health department to use it.  Looking at the time period from 2006 to 2010, there were more than 300 fatal accidents involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis.  These sobering facts are the main reason for introducing the concept of a legal limit for marijuana intoxication.

Other state legislators are making the connection between drugged driving and traffic fatalities.  In California, Assemblywoman Norma Torres reportedly wants to set a zero-tolerance ban on driving under the influence of any drug, including marijuana.

Critics of these proposals argue that the ways that cannibis affects the human body are different than alcohol, the practical testing hasn’t been developed, and medical science hasn’t concluded what limit should be set as acceptable versus unacceptable for driving while having previously used medical marijuana (or other drugs for that matter).

How are states handling this now and what do they propose?

“According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have what are known as “per se” laws regarding drugs and driving. That means anyone driving with traces of an illegal or impairing drug in his or her system is breaking the law. This is closer to a “zero tolerance” policy than the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content states have for drunk driving.

However, of those states that have per se laws, Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island also allow medicinal marijuana, setting up an inherent conflict in their laws.

Marijuana is currently on unsure legal footing: Even as states are beginning to create a legal framework for allowing use of the drug, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug alongside LSD and heroin and has recently begun raiding dispensaries and arresting cultivators. The drug’s tenuous legal hold has created “a mess for enforcement for impaired driving,” says Chris Cochran, deputy director of public information for the California Office of Transportation Safety.

…In an attempt to create something like the clear standard that exists for alcohol intoxication, Nevada set a limit for THC in the blood at 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. That’s about 2 billionths of a gram of THC – one gram is about the weight of a paperclip – in one drop of blood.

In Colorado, state King’s bill would set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. And in Washington state, the ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana would also set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Advocates of medical marijuana say the science isn’t supportive of adopting such specific limits. They worry that this approach will cause drivers who aren’t impaired but have lingering traces of THC in their blood to lose their drivers’ licenses. [emphasis added]

Research has not found a consistent intoxication standard similar to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

While most “over the road” truckers have substance abuse screening programs in place (FMCSR Part 382, et.al.), many commercial fleet operators are not regulated in this area.  The question remains, will drivers who get approved for medical use of marijuana and report for duty on Monday morning drive safely?  What happens if they are involved in a tragic collision with fatalities and the circumstances lead to extended litigation with discovery of the alleged “impairment” of the driver?

Would these laws (as proposed in Colorado and California) be enforceable and/or helpful in curbing driving “under the influence” of medical marijuana?

Do these proposals go far enough?  Is it equally important to document what concentration of antihistamines, Valium, antipsychotics, barbiturates, and codeine (et.al.) is “too much” in a person’s system to drive safely?

Come join our discussion on this and other topics at our networking group on Linked In! (search groups for “SafetyFirst Client Networking”)