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Traffic Safety: 2020 Impaired-Driving Trends to Watch

By Samantha Bloch | Sept. 2, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Alcohol-impaired driving remains a complex and persistent traffic safety and public health issue in the United States. Alcohol is responsible for roughly one-third of all traffic fatalities. In 2018, 10,511 people lost their lives because someone chose to drive after drinking alcohol. While the exact impact of marijuana and other drug use on impaired driving deaths is unknown, drug use among drivers appears to be becoming more prevalent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 12 million U.S. residents—4.7%—age 16 years and older reported driving under the influence of marijuana during the past 12 months, and 2.3 million—0.9%—reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs other than marijuana during that time. In 2019, over 5% of high school students who drive reported they had driven after drinking alcohol.

CDC resources point out that heightened stress can lead to more alcohol and substance use. The economic fallout caused by the pandemic and the isolation resulting from stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements may be exacerbating the impaired driving problem, especially for repeat offenders.

Alcohol Sales Up During Pandemic

The latest available data show that alcohol sales during the pandemic have increased in some states compared with the previous three-year average for the same month, but states vary. In some states, including California and Hawaii, DUI arrests fell during stay-at-home orders; in other states, however, DUI arrests and alcohol-impaired driving deaths increased. In Nevada, for example, 133 people were arrested for driving impaired in the Las Vegas metro area in April this year compared with 75 in April 2019. In Colorado, DUI deaths between Jan. 1 and April 30 were double what they were during the same period in 2019. By late June, Pennsylvania reported near pre-pandemic levels of DUI arrests despite much less traffic on the roadways and restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants. While it is difficult to determine the causes or extent of changes in impaired driving behavior with only a few months of data, legislators may want to keep an eye on how the pandemic impacts impaired driving.

Use of marijuana and possibly other drugs may also be increasing. Some companies in states that have legalized adult use of marijuana reported increases in sales in March, with one online cannabis retailer reporting an increase in first-time customers of more than 50%. Data collected from first responders in several states shows an increase of nearly 18% in suspected overdoses after March 19 compared with the weeks before.

A recent national study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that fatal crashes involving alcohol between 2012 and 2016 showed no significant difference in socioeconomic factors, including race, ethnicity and income level, or urban versus rural classifications. The study concluded that all drivers could benefit from impaired driving prevention programs.

State Strategies to Curb Impaired Driving

Over the last several years, state legislatures have led efforts to lower the rates of impaired driving. In 2019 at least eight states modified their laws regarding ignition interlock devices, which are installed in vehicles to prevent them from starting if alcohol is detected in the driver’s breath. Two of those states—Kentucky and New Jersey—passed legislation to require or strongly encourage all DUI offenders, including first-time offenders, to install interlock devices. New Jersey now requires installation after a first offense. Previously only recidivists and offenders with a high blood alcohol levels were required to do so. Kentucky lawmakers decided to strongly encourage installation by mandating that the license plates of offenders’ vehicles be suspended unless they install interlock devices. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data and The Community Guide systematic review show that the devices reduce recidivism among repeat offenders.

So far this year, three states have enacted laws modifying their ignition interlock installation requirements. Virginia (SB 282), for example, is now requiring individuals convicted of driving under the influence of drugs, including first-time offenders, to install interlocks.

Pending federal legislation (HR 4354/SB 2604) would require all motor vehicles produced after a certain date to be equipped with an advanced alcohol detection system that prevents operation of the vehicle if the driver’s blood alcohol content is above the legal limit.

There is no standardized testing technology for substances other than alcohol. Blood testing has traditionally been considered the gold standard for discovering the presence of drugs in impaired driving cases, though other testing methods use urine, oral fluid or hair samples, or a combination. State legislators are increasingly interested in using oral fluid tests since the technology is minimally invasive, less expensive than other methods and appears to be reliable in identifying recent drug use.

In 2019, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota amended their laws to include testing of saliva, oral fluids or other bodily substances. This year, New York (AB 968/SB 321) has a pending bill that would add saliva tests to the chemical tests a driver must submit to if a police officer requests it. Currently, at least 23 states authorize some form of oral fluid testing at roadside screening sites or for evidentiary purposes in court cases. Most of these states, however, have not yet established active oral fluid testing programs.

States with active oral fluid programs include Alabama, which initially conducted a pilot program and later transitioned to a permanent oral fluid toxicology program using oral fluid testing devices in both screening and evidentiary capacities. Michigan is conducting a statewide oral fluid pilot program that was extended to Sept. 30. And Illinois has a pending bill (HB 5194) that would establish an oral fluid roadside analysis pilot program for one year.

Repeat Offenders

To address recidivism, as well as certain first-time offenders, states have debated and enacted legislation that requires offenders to attend treatment programs or participate in 24/7 sobriety monitoring programs. These programs emphasize sobriety and require certain DUI offenders to submit to breath or urine tests several times (usually twice) daily at a designated site. If the offender fails or does not appear for a test, he or she will receive swift, though moderate, sanctions, which can include bond revocation, parole or probation, or incarceration for 24 to 48 hours.

Currently, 14 states—Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming—have 24/7 sobriety monitoring programs or pilot programs at the state or county level. As recently as last year, Nevada (AB 316) established a voluntary statewide 24/7 sobriety and drug monitoring program, and Iowa (SF 364), Montana (SB 362), North Dakota (HB 1179) and Wyoming (SF 7) refined their programs.

Other evidence-based interventions, such as sobriety checkpoints, have also been approved. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration highlights that very visible and extensively publicized sobriety checkpoints have proven effective for reducing drunken driving and the resulting deaths and injuries. At least 38 states and the District of Columbia authorize sobriety checkpoints. The CDC’s MV PICCS widget can be used to compare the status of sobriety checkpoints across states, as well as the status of 13 other effective strategies for preventing motor vehicle crash injuries, such as alcohol interlocks, primary enforcement of seat belt laws and automated red-light and speed cameras.

To help states evaluate their efforts to reduce drug-impaired driving, the NHTSA developed a Drug-Impaired Driving Criminal Justice Evaluation Tool. The tool is designed to identify program strengths as well as opportunities for improvement and includes a section on state legislation.

Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Transportation Program.

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