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Drug-Impaired Driving Gets a Harder Look

March 14, 2001|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If results of blood tests show that UC Santa Barbara freshman David Attias was under the influence of drugs the night he allegedly ran down five people, killing four, it will serve as another grim reminder that drugs and driving are lethal.

Witnesses' accounts of Attias' wild behavior after his speeding Saab slammed into pedestrians on a crowded Isla Vista street Feb. 23 indicate he may have been on drugs. If so, his name will be added to a long and growing list of drivers whose drug use had fatal consequences. Last week, Attias, 18, pleaded not guilty to 13 criminal charges, including four counts of murder.

Incidents like this, and the widespread availability of illicit drugs, have prompted law enforcement officials, substance abuse experts and doctors in the United States, Europe and Australia to take a harder look at how to deal with the problem of drug-impaired driving, says Michael Walsh, who headed the Drug Advisory Council under former President George Bush and is research director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The problem "is getting worse not only in the U.S. but around the world," says Walsh, who heads a committee on illegal drugs and driving for the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety.

In fact, a 1996 survey found that "more than a quarter of the 166 million American drivers age 16 and older occasionally drive under the influence of alcohol or a combination of alcohol and marijuana."

Other studies have found that, after alcohol, marijuana is the drug most frequently found in the bloodstreams of drivers involved in crashes.

Statistics on drug-involved accident injuries and fatalities are unavailable because most agencies do not routinely track them.

But Walsh, working with Tampa, Fla., police under a federal grant, recently determined that about 30% of suspected impaired drivers given breath and urine tests had one or more illegal drugs in their systems. Marijuana and cocaine accounted for 99% of the drugs found in the drivers. Additionally, most of the drivers tested were legally drunk, with an average blood alcohol concentration of about twice the legal limit, he said.

The study involved the use of new rapid drug detection kits that enable police to test suspects in the field and get immediate results--a tool Walsh and others believe could help police in nabbing drug-impaired drivers. Researchers are studying a variety of drug testing techniques, including the testing of saliva, which has a shorter window of detection and would better pinpoint how recently an illegal substance had been used, Walsh said.

Though parole and probation officers use similar rapid detection kits to check their charges for drugs, they are not currently used by police other than in research studies, according to Walsh.

Determining whether a drug actually contributed to an accident can be tricky because some substances stay in the body longer than others, and it would be difficult to determine if the suspect was impaired by the drug at the time of the accident.

But Walsh and others hope that, as detection techniques evolve, the kits will come into routine use.

The magnitude of the problem in the United States is so disturbing that Walsh's organization recently urged all states to consider establishing legal standards for defining when a driver is criminally drug-impaired, as now is done with alcohol.

The group also recommended stiffer penalties for drug-impaired drivers.

Law enforcement officers currently trained in an intensive drug recognition program can assess drivers for drug use by monitoring blood pressure, body temperature, short-term memory functions and by looking for a host of other symptoms, according to Ron Newton, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety.

It is critical that more officers be trained in specific drug recognition techniques so they can make judgment calls in the field, Newton says.

Southern California will be the site of two important conferences on the issue this year.

Prosecutors, police, toxicologists and emergency medical doctors will meet in Pasadena later this week to learn drug detection techniques and ways to deal with judicial system issues. In June, the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police will meet in Long Beach to discuss the problem of drugs and driving.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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