Our next segment of the Crash Trends Series involves the injuries, deaths, and property losses that result from drivers operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Approximately one in every three traffic fatalities in the U.S. results from a driver who is intoxicated. Recent figures indicate that over 10,000 fatalities and over 200,000 injuries occur annually from drunk driving. Throughout the U.S. we have seen considerable reforms, legislation, and enforcement efforts related to drunk driving over the past 30 years. All U.S. states have a uniform established threshold for determining when a vehicle operator is over the limit for alcohol at a blood-alcohol level (BAC) of .08%. The ways that states handle detection and determining what constitutes “impairment” among those drivers under the influence of drugs (DUID) is less refined, with national uniformity still developing. In Colorado during 2016, there were 605 total traffic-related deaths, of which 196 (33%) involved DUI. With Colorado recently legalizing marijuana, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and legislators are making progress on addressing this concern.
Colorado BACtrack Program
For those under the legal drinking age of 21, any measurable amount of alcohol makes it illegal to operate a vehicle. CDOT has partnered with BACtrack, a well-established maker of alcohol detection devices, to encourage the use of personal breathalyzers, even distributing them to DUI violators. Individuals of legal drinking age can monitor their BAC and better gauge their level of impairment. If a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that a driver is intoxicated, drivers are required to consent to a test of their breath, blood, urine, or saliva. Social norms tend to suggest that having only one or two drinks should keep you within the legal levels for driving but there are many factors that may apply including weight, gender, and food consumption.
Drugged Driving in Colorado
Marijuana, like alcohol and other drugs, has the ability to impair driving. Driving high is a criminal offense, even if you have medically-prescribed marijuana. Impairment delays reaction time, short-term memory, and the ability to accurately perceive distance and time. The established level for marijuana impairment in Colorado is 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. In 2016, the Colorado State Patrol cited marijuana in 17% of their driving under the influence arrests.
Several Strategies for Prevention of Drunk Driving in Colorado
- Sobriety checkpoints: Usually set up temporarily to stop traveling vehicles (often randomly) to check for potential driver impairment.
- Administrative license suspension: Allows for a mandatory license suspension for drivers refusing to submit to impairment tests.
- Mass media: Campaigns and initiatives to heighten awareness of the dangers and penalties for driving while impaired.
- School-based education: Typically involves teaching teens about the consequences of impaired driving or riding with an impaired driver.
- Ignition interlocks: Those convicted of DUI may be required to have a device installed on the vehicle that requires the driver to submit to a brief alcohol breath test before the car will start.
Felony DUI’s in Colorado
In 2015, Colorado implemented a law making it a felony for those charged with impaired driving who have had three prior convictions in the prior 7 years. This allows courts to apply more serious penalties, such as prison sentences for offenders. Michael Rourke, the Weld County District Attorney, thinks the new law allows for the harsher penalties necessary to deter repeat offenders, who are a major risk to roadway safety. In the first year after implementation, approximately 30% of those convicted received a prison sentence.
Drug Recognition Experts (DREs)
A Drug Recognition Expert is a member of law enforcement with specialized training in detecting impairment among motor vehicle operators. They are largely important in attempting to determine if suspects are under the influence of drugs through roadside testing. While alcohol can be tested using a simple breath test, drugs such as marijuana may require more invasive methods of assessment. These are less suitable for roadside investigations, such as a blood test requiring administration by a medical professional. Colorado has been gradually expanding their number of trained officers who are certified through standards developed and administered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.