Press-Republican

February 4, 2012

Drugged-driving arrests increase

REBECCA WEBSTER
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — Drugged-driving arrests have risen 35 percent in New York since 2001.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer recently drew attention to the increase, while noting that the total number of arrests lags far behind drunk-driving arrests.

Many police departments don't have the technology to detect drugged drivers at traffic stops, like a Breathalyzer does with a drunk driver, Schumer said in a news release.

That, paired with the delayed disorientation a drugged driver shows compared to a drunk driver, makes it difficult for officers to identify people under the influence of narcotic drugs.

Schumer is calling for a passing of legislation to help with the problem.

THE BILL

The bill he is proposing — called the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Improvement Act of 2011 — would provide funding that allows the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to develop technologies that would help officers identify those driving under the influence of drugs.

It would also provide money to train officers on how to spot the signs of a drugged motorist.

"Drugged driving is on the rise, and our cops need state-of-the-art equipment and better training to identify and apprehend those who are putting innocent victims at risk as a result of reckless driving," Schumer said in the release.

The legislation would also award grants to states to allow officers to become drug-recognition experts through 200 hours of training or undergo lesser training through the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driver Education program.

LOCAL ARRESTS

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice, 23 drivers were caught under the influence of drugs in 2011 in Clinton County, up from 2009, when there were 10.

In Franklin County, three drugged-driving arrests were made in 2009, 10 in 2010 and nine in 2011.

For Essex County, the numbers are small but actually declined: six in 2009 and seven in 2010, then two in 2011.

Police are on the watch for offenders. Just recently, State Police charged Dennis C. Valentin of Keeseville early in the morning in Chesterfield with driving with ability impaired by drugs. The trooper reportedly spotted glassy, bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils. Blood tests were later taken for the motorist to test for drugs; results were still pending.

WATCHING FOR SIGNS

Plattsburgh Police Chief Desmond Racicot said City Police officers go through impaired-driver recognition training to help them more easily identify those under the influence.

A vehicle drifting between lanes and moving too slow are a few of the reasons an officer might stop a motorist, the chief said.

"There are things that are indicative to impaired driving."

Slurred speech, impaired motor coordination and divided attention are more signs of drug influence.

Racicot said the department also has a drug-recognition expert who is called — whether on or off duty — if an officer stops a motorist, recognizes impairment, but does not smell alcohol. The expert then administers a series of tests to the motorist.

But Racicot said the training for the position is both expensive and time-consuming.

"I think that Senator Schumer's (bill) ... is terrific. More training and expertise, it not only helps the officer, it helps in the process of persecuting the offender."

NEXT STEPS

A National Roadside Survey in 2007 showed that 16 percent of weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal prescriptions or over-the-counter medications, and more than 11 percent tested positive for illicit drugs.

And in 2009, 440,000 people nationally were injured in car crashes caused by drugged motorists, according to the Institute for Behavior and Health.

Schumer's bill, also known as Mariah's Act, will likely run for consideration on the Senate floor as part of a larger highway bill.

The current bill expires March 31.

"With the explosive growth of prescription drug abuse, it's vital that local law enforcement have the tools and training they need to identify those driving under the influence of narcotics to get them off the road," Schumer said in a statement.

"We have made tremendous progress in combating drunk driving; we cannot allow those gains to be erased by drugged drivers."

Email Rebecca Webster at: rwebster@pressrepublican.com