Safety officials seek funds to test drugged drivers

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(Host) State highway safety officials are working to secure new federal funds to help crack down on drivers who are operating their cars under the influence of illegal drugs.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The push to have individual states develop tougher policies towards drugged drivers is coming from the federal government. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that roughly 4,500 drivers were killed in the year 2000 in cases where drugs other than alcohol had impaired the victim’s driving abilities. These fatalities are in addition to the approximately 17,000 drivers who were killed in alcohol-related accidents.

The federal government is making new money available to help train local law enforcement officers identify drivers impaired by drugs and to help pay for a variety of drug tests that may be ordered by the officer. Chuck Satterfield, who is a spokesperson for the Governor’s Highway Safety Commission, says the money is badly needed in Vermont.

Satterfield says police officers need to order a blood test if it’s clear that an impaired driver has not been drinking but is probably under the influence of drugs. However these tests are expensive and Satterfield says an officer also needs to determine what kind of specific drug should be tested for. Satterfield says additional training could make it easier for officers to make this decision:

(Satterfield) “If you stop a car because it’s driving erratically or the driver is showing signs of a lack of coordination or slurred speech and they’re blowing zeros, you still recognize you have a problem and you can still go ahead and make the arrest. The question becomes, what do you do at that particular point? If the person tells you what kinds of drugs they’ve taken so you can test specifically for, or admits to taking drugs, you can deal with the problem. But if you’re just taking a shot in the dark there, you’re hands are really tied.”

(Kinzel) Governor-elect Jim Douglas wants to look at the federal program as part of his overall drug initiative:

(Douglas) “First of all, we need more resources on the road. That’s why I’ve asked the state police to recruit six additional officers for training during the spring course at the Police Academy, to enhance the enforcement capacity that we have on our highways. Secondly, we need to be sure that those who are impaired – whether it’s alcohol or drugs of various kinds – get the treatment help that they need.”

(Kinzel) State highway safety officials are trying to determine how much of a state match, if any, will be needed to access the new federal funds.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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