House Subcommittee Examines Drug-Impaired Driving

July 12, 2018

There was no shortage of expectations for how local, state, and federal efforts can help combat drug-impaired driving at Wednesday’s hearing of the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection.

On the panel was a wide variety of individuals ranging from health and behavior experts, to crime lab workers, to those representing the responsibility and story behind impaired driving.  These individuals were: Dr. Robert DuPont, President of Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc.; Erin Holmes,Director of Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility; Jennifer Harmon, Assistant Director of Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and Colleen Sheehey-Church, National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Impaired driving has been a major concern for a while now, but the level of concern is on the rise. As Sheehey-Church stated, “with legalization of marijuana this will only lead to increased drug-impaired driving.” These concerns have stirred up several questions based around reducing the number of impaired drivers and making roadways safer altogether.

Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta (R-OH) began the hearing stating a very well known campaign message, “Drive sober or get pulled over.” This message was very prominent in the hearing, as the panel voiced what they each believed needs to occur in terms of drug-impaired driving and the reduction of roadway fatalities related to alcohol/drug usage.

Holmes of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility that in 2016, drugs were present in 43.6% of fatally injured drivers with a known drug test result. She suggested implementing a zero tolerance policy for those under 21, as well as additional penalties for punishment of polysubstance use. Dr. DuPont and Ms. Holmes both echoed these ideas, stating they are necessary and would be effective.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) mentioned several concerns regarding the roughly 10,000 people who died in crashes involving a drunk driver in 2016. This statistic is alarming, and Ranking member Schakowsky continued to make it clear that sufficient and reliable data is needed on drug-impaired driving before shifting the focus away from drunk driving.

Data is an element every panel member agreed needs to be a primary focus moving forward in regards to drug-impaired driving. Sheehey-Church related personally, as she lost a son to a drunk and drugged driver in July 2004. Her remarks focused on data and learning more about drugged driving, saying they are key to better understanding what needs to be done and will in turn help drunk driving issues as well. She said she was a strong believer that further research and data is needed to do further work and make progress on the issue; the other panelists agreed.

Beside data and research, Ms. Harmon—an assistant director of a crime lab in California—made it known that toxicology expertise and law enforcement are critical in successful prosecutions of the drug impaired. “In Orange County there is a 95 percent conviction rate on DUI cases that are tried,” she said. The Orange County crime lab has begun to test every person regardless of their blood alcohol level, which is still not routine practice in crime labs.

The hearing turned back to research and data again, as Chairman Latta asked Ms. Harmon, “What are some of the day-to-day obstacles combatting drug impaired driving that you’ve seen?”

Ms. Harmon replied that there are many obstacles preventing crime labs from completing sufficient research. This is mainly due to restricted resources in terms of staffing, technology abilities, and access. This in turn goes back to the data and research being produced, which is vital but is being restricted by those elements mentioned above. Making roadways safer is a top priority and the necessities were clearly laid out by the panel.

Among the efforts to make roadways safer is the SELF DRIVE Act, which was passed in September 2017, and more recently the committee developed a package of over 50 bills to address the opioid crisis, all of which were included in the bipartisan House-passed opioids package. These bills, mentioned by Chairman Latta, aim not only to help the drug epidemic occurring in the United States, but also to focus on making roads safer.

Chairman Latta stated, “With up and coming technologies such as safe, self-driving cars, we could prevent the senseless deaths of thousands of Americans on our roadways every year.” This week’s hearing made it clear that the issue of drug-impaired drivers is growing and calls for a solution as soon as one can be developed.

Watch the full hearing here.

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