Intoxicated Drivers Increasing Death and Injury

Intoxicated Drivers Increasing Death and Injury

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Before the hour hand on your clock moves from one number to the next, three or four traffic fatalities will have happened somewhere in the U.S. One in three of those will be due to an impaired driver. After a historic downward trend, deadly car crashes are on the increase.

Distracted driving (i.e. cell phones) kills nearly 10 people every day, but the main killer is still the intoxicated driver. The increasing use of marijuana and pharmaceuticals are competing with alcohol – or combining with alcohol – to kill many of the expected 32,000 drivers and passengers in crashes this year.

Ideally, drivers would self-regulate and simply not drive if they are possibly impaired. There are charts and graphs that attempt to calculate the type of beverage, whether the drinking was on an empty stomach or not, and the time it takes to clear the alcohol from the body. There are even some devices that are available to consumers to measure alcohol in their system using a test of breath. The problem with all of these measures is that individual metabolism varies widely, and breath samples taken without appropriate safeguards can be unreliable.

The national standard to be considered “legally drunk” is a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08%. At this level, the law presumes that the amount of alcohol in the system results in impaired driving. Many motorists do not realize that lesser levels may not be a presumption of impairment, but in connection with other factors such as involvement in an accident can result in a drinking-related charge. In other words, the court will presume you are too intoxicated to drive at .08 but can make a case that you are impaired at lower levels.

In addition to the variety of factors that impact BAC such as stomach contents, health, weight, fatigue, emotional condition, time of day, and type of beverage to name just a few, can create impairment with “a couple of beers” within an hour before driving. The use of over-the-counter and prescription medication is an often overlooked cause of impaired judgment when driving. Consumers ignore or downplay the warning on medicine labels, and law enforcement may be unable to detect or measure a particular medication or dosage to prove legal impairment.

Combining medication with alcohol can be lethal, even if separately they seem benign. The irony of alcohol and other medications is that one of the first effects is a reduction in the functioning of the part of the brain that would normally allow the person the realization that they are impaired. There are still people who claim to be better drivers after a few drinks!

Adding to the lethal mix is the increasing presence of marijuana users behind the wheel. Whether legal or not and whether recreational or medicinal, marijuana is a mind-altering substance regardless of the increasing public opinion that it is benign and safe.  Whereas alcohol is water soluble and processed in the digestive system and liver to be metabolized to near zero BAC before the next day (although alcohol can be detected in the urine for up to five days), the THC in marijuana is fat-soluble and therefore remains in the body much longer and can accumulate with each use and can be detectable for up to three months in the urine.

When traffic safety is discussed, the number of dead is always a frightening statistic. Add to that the 7,500 injured every day and multiple billions – yes billions – of dollars in crash-related costs, and it becomes clear that keeping the motoring public safe from impaired drivers is vital. Other driving behavior such as inattention as already mentioned, and speeding which contributes to about 30 fatalities daily, make a compelling case for traffic law enforcement. Misplaced efforts to reduce traffic enforcement by defunding law enforcement or restricting traffic stops and other enforcement efforts can only allow more careless and lethal driving to create bloodshed on the roadways.