The horrific crash in Auburn on Sunday, when an allegedly drugged driver plowed into two teenage pedestrians, came as no shock to law enforcement and traffic safety officials. Slowly, but surely, drugged driving is surpassing drunken driving as a lethal threat on state and local roads.
“This is a big, complicated problem that the driving public needs to recognize is serious,” said Chris Cochran, assistant director with the state Office of Traffic Safety, which has begun a public education campaign on the road dangers of everyday drugs.
“People haven’t understood how it affects driving. It didn’t enter their mind that some of these strong drugs, the sleep aids, antidepressants, stimulants, all can be impairing.”
About 1 in 7 drivers involved in fatal wrecks in California during 2014 tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug other than alcohol, according to a Sacramento Bee review of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Most drivers aren’t tested for drugs, particularly if they survive a crash or weren’t at fault. Among California drivers who died and were tested in 2013 and 2014, more than one-third had drugs in their system, state and federal data show.
While drunken driving has been under the spotlight and declining for several decades, drugged driving is on the rise, a reflection of a society where drug use is prevalent. Opioid abuse has been skyrocketing nationwide, and this month 10 deaths in Sacramento and Yolo County have been blamed on fentanyl overdoses. Methamphetamine abuse is endemic in the Central Valley. Marijuana use is growing.
The drug-impaired driving problem is not confined to illegal drugs. People often have prescriptions for the drugs they take before getting behind the wheel.
“It is not uncommon for people to have a drug prescribed to them that they abuse, and not uncommon for people to steal other people’s drugs,” said Placer County Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Scott, who is among a growing group of law enforcement officials statewide who are being trained to detect drivers’ drug use.
The issue hit home on Highway 49 north of Auburn this week when a pickup truck driver veered onto the shoulder, striking and killing two 15-year-old boys, Jared Gaches of Auburn and Trevor Keller of Foresthill. The pair were walking to a coffee shop a few blocks away on a Sunday afternoon after skateboarding.
The suspect, Philip Morris Ingram, 62, of Auburn, a retired drywall finisher, had filled a prescription for the sleeping aid Ambien earlier that day, according to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office. Five pills were missing from the bottle, the prosecutor said. One pill was in his pocket.
A breathalyzer test showed no sign of alcohol, but Ingram’s speech was “slow and lethargic,” and an officer had to stop the sobriety test twice to catch Ingram as he fell, the prosecutor said in court this week. Police received a 911 call just prior to the crash reporting that what appears to be Ingram’s truck was “all over the road” in a nearby residential neighborhood.
Neighbors, who described Ingram as a pleasant person, told The Bee that he was on disability and had a bad back. Investigators discovered he also had prescriptions for painkillers Vicodin, OxyContin and hydromorphone, as well as Ritalin, a stimulant, the prosecutor told the judge.
In a separate incident, a California Highway Patrol officer was run over and critically injured Thursday on Interstate 80 in Sacramento by a driver who, CHP said, “exhibited the symptoms of drug intoxication” when arrested later that day after a chase.
This is a big, complicated problem that the driving public needs to recognize is serious.
Chris Cochran, assistant director with the state Office of Traffic Safety
State and federal officials in recent years have been attempting to determine how much drugged driving is happening. A 2012 study by the California Office of Traffic Safety of drivers at night found that 14 percent had drugs in their system. That was double the number of drivers who tested positive for alcohol. The study, done in nine cities, was set up similar to a DUI checkpoint, but was voluntary and conducted anonymously. Researchers paid volunteers $20 to participate. Those who were found to be legally intoxicated were given a ride or a chance to call someone to pick them up.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study two years later, also done on a volunteer basis, showed an even larger difference. Twenty-two percent of drivers tested had some detectable, potentially impairing drug in their system, whether tested during the day or night. In contrast, only 8 percent of drivers had some alcohol in their system when tested on weekend nights, and only 1 percent during the day on a weekday.
Safety officials cautioned that small amounts of drugs or alcohol in a person’s system do not necessarily make the person an impaired driver. Some drugs, such as marijuana, remain detectable in a person’s system for weeks, after the drug has stopped causing impairment. Researchers disagree about what constitutes a safe level of marijuana in a person’s system.
The list of troubling drugs is long and includes many commonly used substances, traffic safety officials said.
Marijuana is most typical, and has been getting the most attention recently as the state considers legalizing it for recreational use. About 300 California drivers in fatal wrecks during 2014 tested positive for cannabinoids, which are found in marijuana, federal data show. That’s about about 1 of every 14 drivers involved in fatal crashes, including those uninjured or not at fault. A Public Policy Institute of California report released this week found that “fatalities in California involving drivers testing positive for cannabinoids rose from 62 in 1994 to 292 in 2014.”
The stimulant amphetamine is the second most frequent drug found in California drivers’ systems after fatal wrecks. About 1 in 20 drivers involved in a lethal crash during 2014 tested positive for a stimulant, with amphetamine, including its cousin methamphetamine, by far the most common.
About 2 percent of California drivers in fatal crashes in 2014 tested positive for a narcotic like hydrocodone. And 2 percent tested positive for a depressant, such as Valium.
In a highly publicized Carmichael fatality four years ago, prosecutors theorized that a hit-and-run driver who killed a young man, severely injured his girlfriend and killed their four dogs had shot up heroin before the incident. When arrested a few days later, the 33-year-old man – who had three prior DUIs – was found to have Xanax and marijuana in his system.
California drivers in crashes frequently are found to have more than one drug in their system, law enforcement data show. Of those involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for drugs, about 25 percent tested positive for more than one type of drug, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Roughly 30 percent also tested positive for alcohol along with a drug.
Law enforcement and traffic safety officials say combining drugs or mixing drugs with alcohol can dramatically ratchet up a person’s inability to drive. “It’s a one-two punch,” Cochran said. “They become more potent.”
Drug impairment detection, though, is still in developmental stages. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and California highway safety officials say that drugs are complex, ever-changing and come in a variety of doses, making it difficult to set standards for what levels might legally constitute impairment that should prohibit a person from driving.
In an effort to catch up to the growing problem of drugged driving, state and federal officials for several years have been funding training for law enforcement officers as drug-recognition experts, or DREs, typically via California Highway Patrol training.
14 percent Percentage of drivers at night found to have drugs in their system by the California Office of Traffic Safety
At the Placer County double fatality last week, after determining that Ingram had not been drinking, officers on the scene called one of the Sheriff’s Office’s four DREs.
CHP Sgt. Glen Glaser, the state coordinator for the DRE training, said there are now 1,690 police officers in the state who are trained, tested and certified as DREs.
DREs typically conduct their testing of suspected drug-impaired drivers at the jail or in a controlled indoor area. The analysis includes a series of sobriety tests and a series of eye exams under different lighting. The investigating DRE takes the person’s pulse several times, checks blood pressure and temperature, and quizzes the person about his or her medical history.
DREs are trained to be able to determine whether a person is under the influence of any one or combination of seven categories of drugs, Glaser said. The DRE also may determine that the person has a medical condition, and is not on drugs. Courts have ruled that a DRE’s analysis is admissible in court as evidence.
Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, has introduced a bill, SB 1462, that would allow police to use cotton swab kits to take a saliva sample for drug testing from a suspected impaired driver after a driver fails a field sobriety test. The goal is to use new technology that can detect evidence of a variety of drugs.
“Drugged driving is quickly becoming a serious public health and safety problem that is under-reported, under-enforced and under-recognized,” Huff said in a statement. “We lack the same kind of deterrents for drugged driving as we do for drunk driving, yet highway safety hazards and fatalities are increasing with widespread prescription and illicit drug abuse across all demographics.”
Speaking to The Bee on Friday, Huff said he senses that even consumers of legal medicine don’t think enough about the effects of the drugs they use. “We read the warnings, and we’ve become numb to it.”
California will face more questions about how to handle drugs and driving later this year if a ballot measure is approved by state voters legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
The statewide marijuana measure that is most likely to qualify for public vote later this year would provide the California Highway Patrol with $3 million a year for four years to come up with protocols to determine whether a driver is too impaired to drive. Motorists also would be barred from having an open container of marijuana or pot products while driving, operating or riding in the passenger seat of a car, boat or aircraft.
State traffic safety and law enforcement leaders say more work needs to be done on public education highlighting the perils of using drugs and driving.
“Impaired driving is just as much of a danger” as drunken driving, Placer County Sheriff’s Lt. Scott said. “Getting that concept in people’s minds, and maybe they will make a different decision than getting behind the wheel.”