Police are on track to make more arrests for driving under the influence of drugs this year in Massachusetts than in any year in at least the past decade. And according to a 2008 federal government survey, Massachusetts ranked third – behind only the District of Columbia and Rhode Island – in having the highest rate in the nation of driving while impaired by drugs.
Police are on track to make more arrests for driving under the influence of drugs this year in Massachusetts than in any year in at least the past decade.
Figures from the Registry of Motor Vehicles show that police charged 504 drivers in the first six months of 2009 with driving under the influence of drugs. In all of last year, 632 drivers were charged with the offense.
The spike in arrests offers a wider look at a problem that can have tragic consequences. Last week in Milton, police said a driver, high on either heroin or methadone, caused a head-on collision that killed 25-year-old Alison Regan, a teacher at a school for autistic students.
According to a 2008 federal government survey, Massachusetts ranked third – behind only the District of Columbia and Rhode Island – in having the highest rate in the nation of driving while impaired by drugs.
The Survey on Drug Use and Health, which analyzed data from 2004 through 2007, found that 6.4 percent of Massachusetts drivers surveyed admitted to having recently driven under the influence of marijuana, cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, heroin or prescription drugs used recreationally. The national average was 4.7 percent.
Drunken driving remains a far more widespread problem. In a recent 12-month period, police arrested 16,199 drunken drivers in Massachusetts, more than twice the number of drivers arrested in the nine years since 2000 for driving under the influence of drugs.
Like alcohol, narcotics can greatly affect a motorists’ reaction time, coordination and judgment. Drugged driving is punishable much the same way as drunken driving.
But unlike drunken driving, in which the level of alcohol in the bloodstream can be measured by a Breathalyzer test, police say arrests for drugged driving are often based largely on an officer’s observations.
Detective Sgt. Richard Tapper of the Quincy Police Department said officers who suspect a driver has been using drugs can ask them to give a urine or blood sample, but there is no penalty for refusing, such as the temporary loss of driver’s license for refusing a Breathalyzer.
“The officer’s observation is the whole key to the case,” Tapper said.
If drug use is suspected, officers can give drivers sobriety tests and look for pupil dilation, odd behavior or the odor of drugs like marijuana.
“It could be 32 degrees below zero, and they’re sweating profusely,” Tapper said. “You know something’s up.”
In extreme cases, such as with fatal accidents, Tapper said officers trained as drug-recognition experts – there is one on the Quincy force – are called in to help determine whether a driver is impaired on drugs.
Like in most states, drivers in Massachusetts must be found to be impaired to be arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. In 15 states, including Rhode Island and Virginia, it is illegal to drive with even a trace of a banned drug in a driver’s blood, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Recently, researchers have tried to understand how common drugged driving is.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published its annual roadside survey in July that, for the first time, included screening methods to detect marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs. Interviewers, using payments of $50 to $100 as an incentive, solicited saliva and blood samples from randomly selected drivers at 300 locations around the country.
The result: 16.3 percent of nighttime weekend drivers tested positive for drugs. Nearly 9 percent had used marijuana, while nearly 4 percent each had used cocaine or prescription drugs. The tests didn’t indicate when drivers used the drugs or whether the driver was impaired.
Those who tested positive were not arrested but allowed to arrange alternate transportation home.
John P. Kelly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.