CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WDEF) – On Wednesday, March 22, the Tennessee Highway Safety Office (THSO) was joined other public safety partners to launch the THSO’s new “Stop Drugged Driving” campaign to combat Tennessee’s recent spike in drugged-impaired driving crashes and fatalities.
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“Since 2015, more Tennessee traffic fatalities have involved a drugged driver than a drunk driver,” said Vic Donoho, Director of the THSO. “The purpose of our ‘Stop Drugged Driving’ campaign is to spread awareness, educate the public, and increase enforcement by advancing our Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program.”
In 2015, there were 962 fatalities statewide, according to data provided by the Tennessee’s Integrated Traffic Analysis Network (TITAN). Approximately 47 percent (453) involved an impaired driver. 26 percent (252) involved a drunk driver, and 32 percent (312) involved a drugged driver.
TITAN’s definition of drugged-impaired driving means the investigating officer indicated that drug use contributed to the crash, or the driver tested positive for one or more of the following: marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), methamphetamines, and/or other controlled substances, possibly in addition to alcohol.
“At TBI, through the Tennessee Incident-Based Reporting System, we find that while arrests being made by law enforcement across the state are showing a decrease in alcohol-related arrests, the number of drugged-driving arrests is up significantly,” said Jason Locke, Deputy Director of the TBI. “It is clear that many drivers in Tennessee are operating motor vehicles while using alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs.”
In 2016, the TBI tested blood samples from almost 20,000 driving-related offenses, Locke stated. Of these, 11,000 drivers tested over Tennessee’s legal limit for alcohol. The remaining 9,000 drivers tested for drugs. Results from the last two years show a marked increase in the percentage of drivers who tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main chemical component of marijuana. Locke also stated that the number of toxicology samples testing positive for methamphetamine has tripled in the last three years.
However, it’s not just illegal substances detected in the TBI’s toxicology results. According to Locke, prescription drug abuse is increasingly causing serious problems in Tennessee. Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, for example, has been found in one-third of the highway safety cases that were tested for drugs by the TBI.
“Everyone needs to think about the substances they and their loved ones are taking, including medications they are prescribed,” said Dr. Morgan McDonald, Assistant Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. “We encourage communication between individuals and providers regarding possible side effects and medication interactions, particularly before driving. Medication safety is everyone’s concern; if you see behavior that is concerning, act on that observation.”
Data provided by the Tennessee Department of Health shows a drastic increase in the number of Tennessee drug overdose deaths in the past five years. In 2011, there were 1,062 deaths. In 2015, there were 1,451 deaths.
“On April 3, our ‘Stop Drugged Driving’ billboard will go up in Waverly to encourage law enforcement to remain vigilant in keeping drugged drivers off Tennessee streets, roads, and highways,” said Mr. Leonard. “Our prayer is that, one day, drugged driving will cease to exist and other families will never have to suffer the tragic loss of loved ones as we have.”