Experts concerned about `drug driving'
By Maggie Shepard
January 7, 2006
Just before Christmas, a woman who says she was taking only the prescribed dose of her pain killer and anti-anxiety medication blacked out as she was driving to the grocery store.
She lost control of her SUV and caused a crash that killed Natasha Ruth, 69, according to Rio Rancho police.
DWI activists and police say the crash illustrates a driving problem that is overshadowed by attention to alcohol and driving, but can be equally tragic.
Instead of "drunk driving," they call it "drug driving."
"With the drugs that are out there, reading the side effects and thinking they are doing everything right is not enough," said Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center.
To help fight the behavior, the family of Natasha Ruth has mobilized a portion of its family Web site, www.deluxteam.com, with pictures of Ruth and the crash.
New Mexico law does not differentiate between impairment from alcohol, legal narcotics or appropriately used prescription drugs.
"Impairment means impairment," said Franklin Garcia, program director for the state Traffic Safety Bureau.
His agency tracked 34 crash deaths in 2003 and 24 deaths in 2004 statewide in which the driver had some sort of narcotics, legal or illegal, in their blood. The statistics did not note if more than one drug or alcohol was present.
In 2005, alcohol-related traffic deaths numbered 16.
"The impaired driver is killing New Mexico," said Albuquerque Police Lt. Murray Conrad.
He is in charge statewide of training law enforcement agents to recognize drugs' effects on the body. APD has about 20 officers certified as experts in detecting signs of drug impairment.
"When you are booking drunks, you can see them, you can hear them and you can smell them," Conrad said.
But drug impairment isn't always obvious to police - or the driver.
"You've got the elderly person who, for all of their ailments and all of their stuff, they are prescribed lots of medication," Conrad said. "Overall, when you've got somebody who is taking a series of medication, the combination of those things can be dangerous."
And long-time regimens or a dose of a long-trusted medicine can suddenly turn bad, says Kirk Cumpston, medical director for the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center.
The center, based at the University of New Mexico Hospital, runs a hot line for medical and poison questions.
Cumpston said the hot line has received reports of people dying simply from overdosing on acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.
"It does seem like people don't realize" the potential effect of drugs on their driving, Cumpston said. "It's not necessarily intentional. When someone is in pain, I believe they will do whatever they can to get rid of it."
Conrad uses three examples of drug driving to show the potential for deadly accidents.
He says that last month, officers in another county were called to check on a man in a truck on the side of the road.
"I'm just reading his tox(icology) report and this guy was impaired," Conrad said.
The man was on an anti-seizure drug to help ease back injury pain, an anti-depressant over his concern for not being able to work, and another medication,Conrad said.
The man pulled his truck to the side of the road where he sat in a daze, Conrad said.
"A World War II vet, who has cancer and large amounts of narcotic analgesic to help with the chemotheraphy pain, should he be driving?" Conrad asks.
No he shouldn't, according to Conrad, though the community should be more compassionate with him than with the next example, Conrad says.
"You've got a guy, a poly-drug user (more than one drug at a time) who knows just how much to drink so he doesn't register," Conrad said.
The man snorts cocaine and drinks alcohol, a combination that produces a longer-lasting high through a by-product called cocaethylene.
"These people know what they are doing," Conrad said.
But with the nationally recognized training to become a drug recognition expert, about 20 officers on APD's force now know more than the poly-drug users do.
Some of the drug experts serve in the department's traffic unit, but not all of the DWI officers or the traffic officers have the certification or extra knowledge to catch someone for driving while on drugs.
Metro Capt. Mike Castro, in charge of the traffic and DWI units, said he would like all of his officers to have the expertise, but the training is intense and other departmental goals are taking center stage, he said.
"We're looking at it for the future, (and) maybe this year start with a few more," Castro said.