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Editorial: Stepped-up effort to crack down on 'drugged drivers' makes sense

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:20 AM

Drunken drivers take a serious toll on West Virginia's highways, as evidenced by the more than 100 people killed and 700 injured every year in the Mountain State in alcohol-related road accidents.

"Drugged" drivers pose much the same risk, as demonstrated in April 2009 when a Barboursville resident under the influence of three types of prescription drugs crashed her car into another vehicle and killed a woman and two teenage girls.

Yet, when it comes to enforcing driving under the influence laws and establishing whether a driver is impaired, the task is much more difficult in cases involving motorists whose abilities are hampered by the use of drugs.

A proposal by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to change state law could help balance that equation.

Currently, West Virginia law says that authorities have the right to test suspected impaired drivers for alcohol, but does not specifically allow testing of drivers for drugs. Tomblin's proposed legislation would explicitly permit officers to test for drugs. The bill also would apply the same standard that suspected drunken drivers face when they refuse to take a test that checks the level of alcohol: in court, refusal is considered the same as failing the test.

The need for this adjustment to state law is obvious. One in 10 adults in West Virginia has a drug problem, according to federal data, and West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of drug overdoses. It only stands to reason that a significant number of drivers on West Virginia's road could be impaired by the use of drugs. About 1,000 drivers were arrested statewide on suspicion of drugged driving last year, or about 10 percent of all DUI arrests, according to Bob Tipton, the state's director of highway safety.

Officials acknowledge, however, that the proposed changes won't be easy to enforce. Testing motorists for alcohol simply requires a breath test, meaning they must blow into a device. Checking someone for the presence of drugs requires either a blood or urine test, which likely would require obtaining a search warrant if the driver is unwilling to supply a blood or urine sample.

Because of the increased complexity related to drugged drivers, Tipton said state police will begin giving certain officers special training so they can serve as experts in drug recognition. The trained officers would check things like pulse rate, blood pressure and pupil dilation. If the officer determines that the driver is impaired, they could proceed to further blood and urine testing, Tipton said. He anticipates 20 officers would be trained to perform the examinations in the first 18 months after the program is introduced.

As we have learned about drunken drivers, changing laws and stepping up enforcement won't eliminate the deaths and injuries caused by impaired drivers. But these efforts can help reduce the carnage. The legislation proposed by Tomblin and the attendant changes planned by state police are fully worth enacting.

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