Pubdate: Wed, 17 Mar 2004
Source: Gamecock, The (SC Edu)
Copyright: 2004, The Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina
Author: Aparna H. Kumar, Associated Press


WASHINGTON - Citing estimates that 11 million people sometimes drive
under the influence of illegal drugs, a growing chorus in Congress
wants the government to do something about it.

Eight states now have specific laws on "drugged driving," but their
statutes are vague. None specifies an equivalent level to the 0.08
percent blood content that Congress established as the legal level for
alcohol impairment.

That's partly because there's no roadside test to detect the presence
of drugs in the body - no handy "breathalyzer" as there is for
alcohol. And even if blood or urine samples taken at a hospital test
positive for drugs, there's no standard for how high is too high to

"Zero tolerance" is the level some lawmakers want Congress to
establish. A motorist found to have any controlled substance in his or
her system would be considered unlawfully impaired.

"Everyone who drives is affected by this," said Rep. Rob Portman,
R-Ohio, citing a report last September by the Department of Health and
Human Services estimating that during the previous year nearly 11
million people drove at one time or another under the influence of
drugs. The same survey said three times as many people - 33.5 million
- - drove under the influence of alcohol in 2002.

Portman introduced a bill last week that would create a model
drug-impaired driving law for states to adopt to address what
proponents say is a monumental problem that has gone largely ignored.

Under Portman's proposal, states that enact similar laws defining
impaired as any detectible amount of drugs in a blood or urine sample
would get money for training police and prosecutors and for driver
counseling. They would also get grants to research field tests to
measure motorists' drug levels.

Rather than offering a carrot, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., prefers the
stick approach. His bill would make states that don't enact
drug-impaired driving laws forfeit 1 percent of their annual federal
highway funds to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The amount forfeited would double each year up to 50 percent.

States are wary of both approaches, recalling that when incentives
were not enough to persuade some of them to adopt the 0.08 blood
alcohol limit for drunken driving, Congress in 2000 directed that up
to 6 percent of their federal highway funds be taken away.
Recalcitrant state legislatures fell quickly into line.

"We believe that as a basic principle states need to enact laws that
meet their own needs," said Cheye Calvo, a transportation policy
specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state
highway safety agencies, goes further, advising its members not to
adopt drug-impaired driving laws at all for the time being.

While there are no reliable statistics for how often drugs are
involved in fatal traffic accidents - primarily because drivers are
often only tested for drunkenness - "we think it's about 10 to 20
percent," said Jeff Michael, director of the office of impaired
driving at NHTSA. "There's a good bit of overlap with alcohol."

Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her
group supports efforts to curb drug-impaired driving. But she
cautioned it is difficult to set an across-the-board standard for all
illegal drugs when they may affect driving differently - or not at

"There needs to be more research," Hamilton said.
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