DWI Task Force: 1 in 4 La. residents drives drunk or high

Updated: Sep. 5, 2018 at 5:02 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - One in four Louisiana residents drive drunk or high, according to Louisiana Highway Safety Director Lisa Freeman.

Freeman and other members of the Governor’s Task Force on DWI discussed a number of ways to eliminate impaired driving Wednesday. It was the first such meeting since the task force was reinstated by Gov. John Bel Edwards through an executive order in February.

The task force is focusing on driving under the influence of drugs (DUID), specifically opioids and marijuana.

Members recommended creating a separate charge for DUID that mirrors the penalties of a DWI. Members also indicated they would follow the development of marijuana “breathalyzers” that police officers use to detect drug use in the field.

Rebecca Nugent, of the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, said that the state detected more opioids and marijuana in its 2017 blood tests after car accidents than in 2016. Those numbers reflect a trend of increased drug use in vehicles over the last five years.

Nugent and other members of the task force say the state needs to invest in its forensic labs so the state can make an accurate assessment of how dangerous impaired driving is.

More drivers are combining alcohol and marijuana or prescription drugs, too.

“A .04 plus a drug is no longer a .04,” Nugent said.

The task force also recommended changing the state’s DWI statute that protects drivers who use prescription medications behind the wheel.

Right now, the state can not prosecute a driver who is taking a prescribed amount of a medication like Ambien or Hydrocodone with a DWI, even though the medication’s bottles say not to operate heavy machinery.

“We’ve got to stop hiding behind ‘I’m prescribed,’” East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark said.

“The changes require a cultural shift,” Louisiana Highway Safety Director Lisa Freeman added. “It’s teaching as young as you can, in appropriate ways, that impairment is impairment, regardless of source.”

Echoing that idea, Louisiana Transportation Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson said the state’s work can only go so far.

“We can engineer a road for safety, but at the end of the day, it’s how you use it,” he said. “It stars with your condition when you get behind the wheel of that car, and folks underestimate the condition of prescribed medication.”

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