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opinion

Brian Swift Opinion contributor

Published 7:00 AM EST Dec 13, 2019

A logging truck barreled through a red light and slammed into my parents’ car in 2013, killing my father, Tom, instantly. My sister and I waited in anguish as my mother, Barbara, struggled to stay alive; she died three days later. My parents’ golden years were cut short by this violent act. The suffering inflicted on my family can never be undone.

The driver had THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in his system. Tragically, the number of people hitting the road high on marijuana and opioids, or some combination of the two, is increasing. We must find ways to reduce such impaired driving.

Our nation’s experience battling drunken driving can provide guidance. Smart policymaking, including the widespread use of portable breath tests known as breathalyzers, has helped reduce the number of drunken driving deaths by almost 50% since 1991. 

That progress took decades, but we can’t afford to repeat history with drugged driving. Too many lives are at stake.

Breathalyzers were the boogeyman

Drunken driving was once an epidemic. In the mid-20th century, about half of all traffic fatalities in the United States involved a drunken driver. At the time, some states had limits on how much alcohol people could have in their system to legally drive. But police officers didn’t have a widely used method to quickly and easily test a driver’s blood alcohol content, or BAC, at the roadside. After years of experimentation and refinement, the breathalyzer emerged as the primary tool for doing so.

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Stringent blood-alcohol limits and roadside testing took years to gain acceptance because some critics questioned the necessity of BAC limits and the accuracy of the devices. 

Thankfully, the desire for safe roadways won out. All 50 states eventually embraced the same BAC limit. Portable breath tests have become the standard for roadside alcohol screening.

The approach has worked. We must learn from this history as we formulate our approach to policing those who choose to drive under the influence of drugs.

Don’t delay with drugged driving

Drug-impaired driving is commonplace and dangerous. In 2017, 12.8 million Americans drove under the influence of illicit drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2015, 43% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs in their system — up from 27.8% in 2005, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association report.

To keep roadways safe, police officers need a quick way to test for drugs at the roadside, after they’ve pulled someone over on suspicion of driving while impaired.

That solution is oral fluid testing, which uses saliva to test for the presence THC and other drugs. Police ask the driver to swab his or her mouth and place the sample into a device, which can deliver a readout within minutes.

Law enforcement officials in Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom all use oral fluid testing to screen drivers for drugs. The method is noninvasive and increasingly reliable.

After my parents’ death, I contacted Michigan Sen. Thomas Casperson — the senator for my parents’ district — who introduced legislation to test oral fluid technology in the state. The Michigan State Police recently completed a pilot program of an oral fluid testing device called SoToxa, which was developed by the pharmaceutical company Abbott, that can detect the recent use of many drugs, including THC, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and opiates. It was successful enough that the Michigan Legislature has since expanded the program statewide.

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Some critics are using fear tactics to condemn these devices, just as they sometimes continue to do with the breathalyzer even now. 

Further, states are not considering using oral fluid tests on a “one strike, you’re out” basis. A blood test generally follows to confirm a positive oral fluid test. The initial test simply gets the driver suspected of impairment off the road until blood work can be done.

Nor should critics fear that roadside testing could unfairly target people of color. In order to pull a driver over, police still must have reasonable suspicion that he is operating his vehicle while impaired — say, by witnessing erratic driving or a traffic violation.

It took decades to reduce drunken driving. We can save countless lives if we avoid the same mistakes with drug-impaired driving. 

Brian Swift is the executive vice president of the Tarrant County Medical Society, a local medical society for physicians in Fort Worth, Texas.

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