Guest Author – May 2023

Impairment: The Omnipresent Threat to Safety on the Nation’s Roadways

Nick Breul, Senior Project Manager

National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum                                                                 

Every year, I tally up the law enforcement traffic-related deaths and conduct a thorough analysis of the circumstances of each fatal crash and struck-by case. I review crash reports, autopsy reports, investigative reports, and the submission forms that agencies complete to present their fallen officer’s name for inclusion on the walls of the National Law Enforcement Memorial.

The data that I collate from all those documents provides law enforcement a picture of the trends that are occurring nationally and points out where safety and training improvements need to be made. It also records what crashes involved impairment (drugs or alcohol) as a factor.

The numbers of Americans killed and injured on our roadways is on the rise, as people appear to be more reckless, impatient, and distracted than ever before. The hard-fought issue of reducing impaired driving is being lost, as the numbers of alcohol impaired drivers has not diminished and as the legalization of recreational marijuana has undoubtedly added to the numbers of drugged drivers.

An extreme and unfortunate representation of that recklessness occurred in 2022, when a woman, who had just allegedly tweeted that she was “A great drunk driver,” struck and killed three people at a high rate of speed. Two of them, Pennsylvania State Troopers, who were trying to help the third victim, a pedestrian, get off an elevated portion of busy I-95. Three lives senselessly lost to the arrogance and impairment of one selfish individual.

Based on the research that I conducted, I found that 31% of law enforcement traffic related fatalities involved an impaired driver. While the majority reported involved alcohol, a few identified marijuana, or other substances as sources of impairment. That percentage is likely predicably higher. Higher, because in some of the cases we don’t get the complete information on whether the striking driver was found to be impaired, or what the results of a blood draw were, despite our efforts to follow up with the affected agency.

In two other struck-by fatalities in 2022, the officers were in the process of investigating a suspected impaired driver when they were struck and killed by another impaired driver. This occurred here in Maryland, where I live, when an officer on a Holiday DUI enforcement detail stopped a suspected impaired driver, only to be struck and killed by another impaired driver passing the scene of the stop.

Officers must treat traffic as the enemy. They should use their vehicle for protection at a crash scene or on a traffic stop. They must make right hand approaches where practical and wear their assigned reflective high visibility equipment. These are now standard recommendations, often supported by policy, however not utilized, thus increasing the chance of being struck.

While some jurisdictions have data on the increase of impaired driving in states which have legalized marijuana, though I am not aware of any national studies pursuing that. Here in Maryland, where recreational marijuana has essentially been legalized, you smell it regularly when you walk about, but I am also regularly smelling it while driving in my car. The potent odor of burning cannabis wafts from cars ahead of me, or next to me while stopped at a traffic light. Whether you agree with the legalization of marijuana or not, there can be no question, we are not prepared to deal with the inevitable uptick in impaired driving crashes linked to its consumption.

We must protect our protectors as they work to protect us by removing these dangerous drivers from the road. They must be given the tools to detect drug impairment in drivers and to better enforce driving while impaired laws. Classes such as Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and training Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) are critical to combat this continuing problem. If over one in four fatal law enforcement crashes involved an impaired driver, and add to that the other “D”, distraction; the road continues to be a dangerous place.


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