We’ve all heard that driving is a responsibility, not a right, and it is. Driving is an immense responsibility, and one that is often taken for granted, especially when we consider (or don’t consider) the safety factors associated with getting behind the wheel.
Every day, we are armed with a deadly weapon — our vehicle. Many of us don’t think in these terms, but as a prosecutor who has seen the consequences of vehicular crashes, it is an undeniable truth.
When you drive to the grocery store, to school or work, think about all the reflexes and multi-tasking involved. Checking the rear view mirror, activating turn signals, applying brakes, accelerating — the list goes on. Any distraction or impairment could turn an ordinary and simple lane change into a deadly situation.
A bicyclist, a child who chases a ball into the road, these are no match for a vehicle’s hefty size and weight. When you think in those terms, it seems elementary that you wouldn’t drive a motor vehicle after ingesting any substance, legal or illegal, that would impair your ability to drive. The risks are too high, and the potential consequences are unfathomable.
On Aug. 25, law enforcement begins its “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign. There will be increased patrol for potential impaired drivers because the Labor Day weekend is one of the deadliest weekends on the road.
During my time as your city prosecutor, weekly if not daily, we were confronted with impaired driving charges for alcohol use, prescription drug use, and illegal drug use. Alcohol and illegal drugs were easier to prove simply by nature of the test results and the substances involved. It would get more complicated when a person had a prescription for a particular drug, or now, a prescription for medical marijuana.
From my experience, there is a confusion in the public that if you have a prescription, you’re fine to drive. This is not true. Think of prescription bottles that say “do not operate heavy machinery” on the side. Well, a car is heavy machinery, and many drugs, including marijuana (prescribed or not) affect a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle. Specifically, studies have shown that the active ingredient in marijuana, THC (short for tetrahydrocannabinol), produces effects, including reduced reaction time, and slow and sluggish movements. How can one safely operate a motor vehicle under such conditions? The answer is simple. They cannot.
Consider these statistics: A 2013/14 survey conducted by our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found a shocking 1 out of 4 weekend drivers tested positive for a drug that could potentially impair the ability to drive. That’s 25% of all drivers on the road!
Other findings are similarly alarming. A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed the presence of THC in drivers involved in fatal crashes in the State of Washington from 2010-2014. Washington legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 in 2012. This study found that from 2010-2013, drivers who tested positive for THC in fatal crashes represented, on average, about 8% of drivers in fatal crashes each year. In 2014 that percentage increased to 17%.
Studies and statistics are always changing, always being updated and analyzed. While it is important to learn from the research, we don’t need a bunch of numbers to know that one life lost from impaired driving is one too many. While our safety forces may be ramping up their efforts in a few weeks — let’s ramp up our efforts as community members. Stop your friends or family from driving impaired. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Ask them how your prescribed medications may affect driving. Have fun, but celebrate responsibly. If you suspect a driver is impaired, call it in. If you have outdated prescriptions or medications you’re not using, you can dispose of them at any of the drop off stations around Delaware County, including: the Delaware County Jail, the Delaware City Police Department, the Genoa Township Police Department and the Shawnee Hills Police Department.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.