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Study: D.C. Drugged Driving Fatalities Spike

by | Feb 12, 2014

D.C. DUI defense lawyers have watched in recent years as local lawmakers have made it a point to crack down hard on drunk drivers. Those actions include the reinstatement of the breathalyzer during traffic stops and overall increased penalties for those who are convicted.

The primary focus of those laws has been alcohol use behind the wheel. But we may begin to see legislators turn their focus to drugged driving in light of new research by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Non-alcohol drugs detected in fatally injured drivers in the U.S. has risen sharply between 1999 to 2010, the study authors say, pointing to a dramatic spike in the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana. This was the most commonly detected non-alcohol drug in drivers involved in fatalities, and the incidence rate has reportedly tripled just in the last decade.

Part of this, no doubt, can be attributed to the fact that the drug is now legal in many places – including D.C. – for medicinal purposes. In Washington state and Colorado, it’s now legal for recreational purposes (though those measures were not approved until after the study period).

So what we have, then, are more people in general who are using the drug.

Culling information from federal traffic death statistics, researchers found that of nearly 24,000 drivers who died within an hour of a crash and had their toxicity levels immediately tested, 40 percent tested positive for alcohol. Another 25 percent tested positive for drugs.

What was interesting was that from 1999 to 2010, while the presence of alcohol remained stable, the prevalence of non-alcohol drugs increased from nearly 17 percent in 1999 to more than 28 percent in 2010. For marijuana specifically, the rates increased from a little more than 4 percent to a little more than 12 percent – three times as much.

What we must keep in mind, however, and as the researchers are careful to point out, detection of marijuana in one’s system is not necessarily an indicator of intoxication. In fact, it’s very likely that many of those included in the study who tested positive for marijuana were not actually impaired at the time of the crash. Perhaps they had consumed the drug a day or several days or even a week earlier.

And this is the difficulty for prosecutors in marijuana DUI cases as well. How can it be proven that the person was in fact intoxicated?

Alcohol is processed very quickly through the system, so detection of it in excess levels is a likely indicator of impairment. The same is not true for marijuana and for many other drugs.

Usually, what prosecutors will use to prove their case in these situations is a combination of the drug test results, witness statements regarding your driving behavior, witness statements regarding your alleged drug use – and your own statements to police and actions at the scene of the crash.

This is why we always advise defendants to keep their interactions with police to an absolute minimum. Avail yourself of the right to remain silent. Insist on speaking to a lawyer before you offer any statement to investigators.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.