Impaired Drivers: It’s Not Just Alcohol That’s Dangerous
I hope everyone had a safe and very Merry Christmas. Right around the corner is New Year’s Eve and, like every year, our Ukiah Police Department (UPD) officers will be out in force to deter drunk driving.
In early December some of you may have witnessed a horrific car crash on North State Street. A car drove off the side of the road and head-on into a tree. The crash was so bad that firefighters had to use heavy-duty tools to cut the 20-year-old driver out of the vehicle. Thankfully, the car hit a tree and not another car. While hospital personnel attended to the driver’s injuries, UPD officers arrested him for driving under the influence (DUI).
As is often the case with drunk drivers, this was not the first time this person had driven under the influence. This was his second alcohol-related arrest, the first being only months earlier in October. Thankfully, even with multiple DUIs, the only person he injured was himself.
All too often we hear about holiday crashes that affect many more people. In fact, every day in the United States an average of 27 people die from drunk driving accidents, and it seems that most DUI accidents result in injuries to innocent victims.
Another Threat: Drugged Driving
While many people are accustomed to hearing about drunk driving, “drugged driving” doesn’t seem to get as much attention. Here are three recent examples that seem to indicate that drugged driving is on the rise.
During the same weekend as the car crash here in Ukiah, another crash occurred in Petaluma. In this case, a 17-year-old Petaluma driver crashed head-on into another car, whose driver and passenger were taken to the hospital for minor injuries. The girl driving was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana.
On December 11, a 19-year-old Sebastopol man suspected of driving under the influence of drugs was arrested after his pickup drifted into the path of an SUV and caused a head-on crash. After firefighters spent almost an hour cutting parts of the SUV away, the SUV driver was flown to a hospital with life-threatening injuries.
On December 12, a Napa County accident involved a driver suspected of being under the influence of marijuana who was arrested after crossing double yellow lines and causing a major head-on collision. Sadly, the accident severely injured the driver of the other vehicle.
Although using marijuana may help with certain medical problems, driving while under the influence of marijuana or other drugs (prescription or illicit) can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. And, in addition to being dangerous, it’s just as against the law as driving under the influence of alcohol.
A Growing Problem
It may shock you to know just how many drivers are under the influence of marijuana or other drugs. According to a survey released by the California Office of Traffic Safety, one of every seven weekend, nighttime drivers in California is under the influence of drugs.
Recently, 1,300 drivers stopped at checkpoints in California voluntarily submitted breath and saliva samples. Survey results revealed that 7.3 percent of the drivers tested positive for alcohol, 7.4 percent tested positive for marijuana, and 14 percent tested positive for other drugs.
California Director of the Office of Traffic Safety Christopher Murphy said, "This federally funded survey is the first of its kind ever undertaken by a state. These results reinforce our belief that driving after consuming potentially impairing drugs is a serious and growing problem."
In California alone, nearly 1,000 deaths and injuries each year are blamed directly on drugged drivers, according to California Highway Patrol data. In fact, between 1999 and 2009 fatalities in crashes that were caused primarily by drugs (without alcohol involvement) jumped 55 percent.
On January 1, 2013, a new law goes into effect related to impaired driving. The law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September, is Assembly Bill 2020. This law amends the vehicle code to require drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs to provide a blood sample for determining the drug content. If a person refuses to take a blood test at the time of the arrest, officers are required to immediately take their driver’s license and issue the driver an immediate notice of suspension. The notice of suspension takes away a person’s privilege to drive a vehicle that instant.
While the new law will help officers take drugged drivers off the road, it doesn’t help define marijuana intoxication, which is not nearly as well understood as alcohol. Unlike alcohol that has clear limits of intoxication, marijuana does not. This issue is compounded by the lack of a standard on the amount of the drug that drivers should be allowed to have in their blood.
While 13 states have adopted zero-tolerance marijuana laws, 35 states—including California— have no formal standard and instead rely on the judgment of police officers to determine impairment. So our officers will do what they have always done: they will document bad driving observations, and they will ask drivers they suspect are under the influence of any drug to take field sobriety tests.
Our Department’s Approach
Regardless of your position on the legalization of marijuana, I hope that we can all agree that we must do whatever we can to make our Ukiah community safe. That includes not driving a vehicle while impaired, either by alcohol or drugs.
If you suffer from a condition that medicinal marijuana helps, please take the time to learn and follow the rules of legal use. If you don’t know the rules, ask questions before you inadvertently put yourself, your family, and your neighborhood at risk – legal or otherwise. Don’t think just because you have a prescription to use marijuana or any other drug that it’s ok to drive while using that drug.
If, on the other hand, you choose to use marijuana and drive, remember that you are choosing a dangerous, illegal activity. Driving either drunk or drugged is illegal and it puts you, your neighbors, and our whole community at risk.
While I believe in being compassionate, our job at UPD is to protect the citizens of Ukiah. My officers and I will not hesitate to do so when we see illegal or irresponsible drunk and drugged driving.
Please have a safe and very Happy New Year, and if you need to, find a designated driver to get you home safely!
On the Ukiah Police Department website (www.ukiahpolice.com), we have posted links you can use to get more information about DUI laws, and information about the recent Office of Traffic Safety Study.
As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have any suggestions or comments about how we can improve, please feel free to call me, complete our online survey, or leave a crime tip on our website: www.ukiahpolice.com.