Drugged driving arrests become more common
Windber Borough police Chief Andy Frear said there’s a difference between driving drunk and driving while under the influence of drugs. He doesn’t think one is more dangerous than the other. But heroin addicts often pass out while drunken drivers seem to be more likely to get in crashes. Nonetheless, he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of drugged driving arrests during his time with the department.
“It definitely is a problem that has been growing over the past five years,” Frear said. “A lot of times you’ll pull a guy out of the car and they won’t smell of alcohol. You’ll see them outside and they’ll do the sobriety tests. And then you send them to the hospitals to get their blood tested.”
About half of all DUI arrests in Pennsylvania are for driving under the influence of drugs instead of alcohol. That amounts to about 25,000 busts per year. It’s a noticeable trend as the opioid crisis has taken root in communities large and small across the commonwealth, according to Dave Andrascik, drug expert recognition program coordinator for the Pennsylvania DUI Association.
“The number of DUI drug arrests has increased significantly over the last 10 years,” Andrascik said. “I think it’s a better awareness and being able to identify people under the influence of drugs. That’s the main contribution.”
Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox said that about half of his department’s DUI arrests involve drugs of some sort. He doesn’t think they differ that much, as they present the same dangers to bystanders.
“They’re just using a different substance to impair themselves,” Cox said. “But officers may run into more aggression from violators under the influence of alcohol than those under the influence of controlled substances.”
The problem has also presented budgeting issues for local departments. When it’s a DUI arrest involving alcohol, blood tests can be done at Somerset Hospital or the Pennsylvania State Police Regional Crime Laboratory at the expense of the defendant, who repays the cost via restitution. When a blood test is done for drugs, it must be sent to NMS Labs in Philadelphia, with the money provided up front by police departments investigating the incident. It costs $250 a test. They hope to retrieve that money through a trial.
“Driving under the influence of drugs presents a financial challenge that driving under the influence of alcohol does not,” Cox said.
If you multiply that figure by the 25,000 arrests every year in Pennsylvania, that’s costing police departments in the state a combined $6,250,000 annually.
The Meyersdale Borough Police Department hasn’t had as many issues with DUIs as other departments in the area, according to police Chief Dan Colflesh.
“We don’t get that many DUIs over here. And the ones we usually get are alcohol-related,” he said. “But I do believe it is common for it to be drug-related. It’s probably low here because it’s a small town and we patrol the bars rather regularly. We do see (drug-related DUIs) occasionally.”
In Conemaugh Township, the police department has seen a steady increase in the past five years in the number of DUIs involving drugs, according to Sgt. Vincent Zangaglia. He also agreed with Frear that it’s difficult to identify people operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs because signs such as odor are not present in those cases. It’s still important to determine whether the driver is doing so, however.
“It’s very dangerous to drive with those things in the system,” Zangaglia said. “You’re as impaired as much or more than you are with alcohol. Your reaction times decrease. And obviously your vision and motor skills are decreased.”