Meadville Tribune

Local News

May 15, 2014

Advanced training helps officers spot impaired drivers

Driving under the influence doesn’t just mean driving under the influence of alcohol.

“We’re finding that so many suspected DUI drivers police are coming across have not only ingested alcohol but have drugs in their system,” Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz told the Tribune on Wednesday. Of the 394 DUI cases that made up approximately 1/3 of his office’s 2013 case load, for example, some sort of drug involvement was seen in approximately a third.

As Schultz sees it, “There are more and more drugs out there.”

A drug, defined for the purposes of DUI discussion as “any substance that, when taken into the human body, can impair the ability of the person to operate a vehicle safely,” by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, can add multiple layers of complexity to a DUI arrest.

“We have many drivers who have ingested marijuana who are also taking prescription pain medication,” Schultz said. “They may appear to be impaired, but they don’t have classic signs of alcohol impairment.”

Enter Pennsylvania Driving Under the Influence Association, a professional organization describing itself as “working to address the DUI problem in all of its many stages — from prevention to enforcement up to, and including, adjudication and rehabilitation,” and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, who partnered to present two days of training in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement hosted by West Mead Police Department and Schultz’s office.

A total of 25 officers from police departments in Cambridge Springs, Cochranton, Conneaut Lake, Franklin, Linesville, Polk and West Mead Township responded to the invitation, spending Tuesday and Wednesday undergoing advanced training in the detection of drivers impaired by substances other than alcohol.

For Schultz, the time has come to expand the DUI problem past just alcohol.

“We see marijuana a lot, pain medications, sleeping medications, things that probably say on the bottle that you shouldn’t be driving,” he said. “It’s usually a combination of alcohol and drugs. The hope is that the officers will be able to make better-informed decisions about whether to arrest someone or not after receiving this training.”

During the training, officers learned that lots of things could happen when an officer comes into contact with a drug-impaired driver. For example, an officer unfamiliar with the indicators of drug impairment might do nothing with the subject, might recognize there is something wrong with the driver but doesn’t know how to address the issue, might allow the subject to continue on his or her way, might drive the subject home or allow the subject to ride home with another individual or might recognize indicators of impairment and arrest the driver for DUI.

A well-informed officer, on the other hand, might be able to save a life for a completely unexpected reason.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a television set will immediately recognize the three tests included in the standardized field sobriety test battery — the walk-and-turn test, the stand-on-one-leg test and the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, where the officer moves a pencil or other object in front of the subject, who has been instructed to follow the object with the eyes without moving the head.

While administering the HGN test, the officer is looking for a horizontal jerking when the eye gazes to the side. However, the officers attending the training were also urged to note whether pupils in both eyes are the same size. If the subject doesn’t have an explanation for the difference in size — a past injury or brain surgery, for example — an ambulance should be called immediately because a stroke could be taking place.

One thing police officers aren’t impressed with is a plea that “I’ve never done this before,” according to Corporal Craig Amos, patrol unit supervisor assigned to Pennsylvania State Police’s Troop E Meadville barracks. “The average offender drives under the influence 80 to 88 times per year,” Amos said. “We catch 7 to 10 percent.”

Amos, who describes himself as having been on the job for almost 20 years, has stayed on patrol “because that’s where you make an impact,” he said.

“DUI enforcement is the most important thing we do, but you never know who you save,” Amos said. Notifying a family that a member has died as a the result of a DUI, on the other hand, is something that stays with you forever. “It’s the most miserable part of the job,” he said.

Wanting to never have to do another notification is what keeps him on the job, working with officers to get them geared up to look for any impairment — and get the driver off the road before it’s too late.

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