Mothers Against Drunk Driving was created in 1980 with the primary mission to stop drunk driving—a crime of major concern. But more recently, drivers on prescription drugs are becoming a greater problem than drunk drivers, since there is no agreed upon level at which drugs in the blood become a hindrance to safe driving. Nevertheless, the behavioral effects of taking some prescription drugs are similar to those of inebriation. For example, some anti-depressants can dull alertness and slow reaction time, while others, such as stimulants, encourage risk-taking and impair a driver’s ability to judge distances. However, despite these side-effects, police officials struggle to prosecute drivers who are taking valid prescriptions, but who still pose a serious threat to the safety of other drivers and pedestrians on the road.
Some states have taken steps to confront the drugged driving problem, such as making it illegal to drive with any detectable level of prohibited drugs in the body. The issue of driving while under the influence of prescription drugs is a much harder problem to remedy, partly because of the complex chemistry of the drugs, which makes their effects more difficult to predict than alcohol’s effects. Furthermore, the effects of prescription drugs can vary widely based on the individual taking the medications, as well as many other factors. Finally, predicting whether or not a driver took drugs immediately before getting on the road can also be tricky, since some drugs linger in the body for days or even weeks.
But the problem is growing, according to R. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s top drug policy advisor. In fact, enforcement officials in some states say that the problem is growing so quickly that they are putting hundreds of police officers through special training to spot signs of drug impairment, as well as crying out for the development of better technology to detect it. Unfortunately, there is not reliable data on how many drivers drive while impaired by prescription drugs, since many states combine the data with that for drunken driving, but Mr. Kerlikowske wants to see the problem reduced by 10 percent over the next five years.
The biggest hurdle to convicting those charged with drugged driving, is that law officials are unable to prove impairment with blood tests. Instead, prosecutors rely upon “drug recognition experts”, or law enforcement officials trained to spot signs of impairment in drivers. Currently, there are only 7,000 such officers nationwide—not nearly enough to combat the growing problem. In their defense, defendants can try to prove that they did not realize that their medications would affect their driving. While these defense might not hold up, particularly if there is a warning label on medication bottles, juries may still have a difficult time convicting someone of a drugged driving accident since most people take at least one prescription medication for health problems. For example, according to Douglas F. Gansler, the attorney general for Maryland, persuading a jury to convict someone of impaired driving from prescription drugs remains difficult all but for the most egregious cases:
“Because most people on the jury will also likely be taking prescription drugs for some ailment. Whether it’s Lipitor or allergy pills or whatever it might be, they might think, ‘I don’t want that to become criminal.’ ”