Medicated behind the wheel

Enforcement: Police get special training to identify drivers under the influence of prescription drugs, as well as illegal ones.

March 07, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

People who drive high on illegal drugs have been a problem for years, but Maryland authorities are increasingly concerned about another highway danger: drivers who get behind the wheel while strung out on prescription medications.

In Harford County, drivers impaired by prescription drugs dominate those arrested for "drugged driving" violations. In Baltimore County, heroin is the leading drug, but legal drugs -- from anti-depressants to powerful narcotics such as OxyContin -- are running a close second, authorities said.

"Within the past four years or so, it's really picked up with those types of [prescription] drugs," said Officer Frank E. Enko, who heads the Baltimore County Police Department's team of 22 drug-recognition experts, known as DREs. "It's really taken off."

A 25-year crusade against drunken driving has sharply cut alcohol-related traffic fatalities across the country, but authorities say a similar get-tough campaign is needed to crack down on drivers impaired by legal and illegal drugs.

"The problem of drugged driving is on a scale similar to drunk driving, and yet all of the response has been on drunk driving," said Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a former national drug official. "It's terra incognita."

Several factors account for the wide disparity between drugged-driving and drunken-driving enforcement, law enforcement officials and other experts said.

Few police officers are trained to recognize drugged drivers. Maryland has 125 drug-recognition experts, and they are spread thin across the state.

For example, Deputy Sheriff Carl N. Brooks with the Harford County sheriff's office does most of the drug evaluations of impaired drivers in Harford and Cecil counties, and he has traveled as far as Westminster in Carroll County upon request.

Testing is limited. Officers can use a quick roadside test to determine whether someone meets the legal threshold for alcohol impairment. A more sophisticated test done at police stations, and admissible in court, typically follows.

A 0.07 percent blood-alcohol concentration level earns a driving-while-impaired charge, and a 0.08 level or higher results in a more serious driving-under-the-influence charge.

The technology for simple drug tests was not available until recently, and such tests are not legal in Maryland.

Thanks to years of public-awareness campaigns and legislative efforts, laws regarding drunken driving are more explicit.

There is no legal intoxication standard for drugged driving similar to the 0.08 standard.

"Society recognizes drunk driving. They understand drunk driving and the per se limit of 0.08 and 0.07," said Sgt. Charles Smith Sr. of the Maryland State Police, who runs the state's DRE program.

But a growing body of research on drugged driving is catching the attention of officials, police agencies and public policy experts. Although illegal drugs such as heroin, marijuana and PCP account for most of the problem, a rising tide of prescription drug abuse over the past decade has begun spilling over onto roads and highways, authorities and experts say.

A recent drugged-driving incident in Howard County was typical. In November, the operator of a Dodge pickup truck, Carl W. Covert, 42, of Pasadena, hit the side of a car on Route 100 in Anne Arundel County about 9 a.m. but kept driving. Howard County police officers found Covert stopped on Route 100 near Route 103, according to court documents.

No sign of alcohol

Covert failed a field sobriety test and was arrested and taken to Howard's southern precinct. There, Officer Joseph A. Gallina, who heads Howard County's team of five DREs, administered an alcohol test, but none was detected, court documents show.

Then Gallina received Covert's permission to conduct a drug-recognition test and determined he was under the influence of a drug, court records said.

A blood test later confirmed the man had Ambien, a popular sleeping medication, in his system, Gallina said.

The case concluded last month when a Howard District Court judge gave Covert probation before judgment for one year and a $45 fine.

Covert declined to comment through Glen Burnie attorney William Turc. "He just wants closure," Turc said.

Speaking generally about the issue, Turc said he is busy handling "many more" DUI cases involving prescription drugs than illegal drugs.

"In most of those cases, it was a prescription drug probably taken by mistake," Turc said. "I've had clients who are on prescribed drugs who take more than they should by mistake or they have an adverse reaction."

For now, there are no precise statistics that reveal distinctions between legal vs. illegal drug abuse among drivers.

Nationwide, nearly 11 million people drove under the influence of illegal drugs -- roughly one-third of the those who drove drunk, according to a 2002 national survey of drug use.

In Maryland, arrests of drivers impaired by illegal or prescription drugs jumped 41 percent from 2000 to 2003.

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