Polysubstance Impaired Driving–A Growing Challenge for Law Enforcement
Portable oral fluid drug screening proves an effective countermeasure.
April 11, 2022
Today’s officer faces unprecedented challenges daily. From day-to-day operations, to local and federal regulation changes, officers must be nimble and able to adjust quickly. The legalization of marijuana in nearly 20 states set more challenges to road safety and subsequently, push to relax laws related to drug possession1. As a result, a mounting limitation for police officers to keep up with new trends is possessing enough tools to recognize and analyze drunk, drugged or polysubstance impaired drivers.
“Drugged driving” is not identical to “drunk driving,” but driving while impaired due to the inebriating effects of drug use is just as dangerous. While there are standardized methods to determine blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in drunk drivers, there is currently no standardized method to determine drug alcohol concentration, simply a BAC for drugs.
It is difficult for police officers to confidently identify a drugged driver because drugs impact an individual’s driving skills differently, based on the substance and the driver’s metabolism. For example, marijuana can slow a driver’s reaction time, impair judgment, and decrease coordination. Cocaine or methamphetamines can cause drivers to be reckless and overly aggressive, while certain prescription medications, such as benzodiazepines and opioids, can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and impaired cognitive functioning.2 Another dangerous trend is polydrug and polysubstance use, individuals taking several different drugs and/or a combination of drugs and alcohol at the same time
Driving while impaired by any substance, despite legalization status, is against the law in all fifty states and risks the safety of anyone sharing the road. Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), renowned researchers in the effects of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs on drivers’ coordination and cognitive capabilities, suggest that drugged driving is on the rise. NHTSA’s 2020 study of seriously or fatally injured road users (Thomas et al., 2020), found the overall prevalence of alcohol, cannabinoids and opioids increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, during the last quarter of 2020, 56% of drivers involved in a serious injury collision, or a fatal crash tested positive for at least one drug in their system based on data shared by participating trauma centers.3
Countering the Trend
Law enforcement officers, when tasked to identify and remove impaired drivers from the road before they can cause injury to themselves or others, often do not have access to effective resources for countermeasures. However, with more officers becoming trained as drug recognition experts (DREs), dedicated traffic resource grants and oral fluid drug screening technology enablement, officers and the communities they protect can stand a better chance against impaired driving.
Oral fluid drug screening is a low risk, modern device officers use to investigate active substances impairing the driver. As the name suggests, oral fluid drug screening uses a person’s oral fluids (OF) such as saliva and other debris in the oral cavity, to detect the presence of drugs in the driver’s system. This technology is accurate, hygienic and portable, which is why it is rapidly gaining acceptance as an effective alternate biological matrix to blood or urine,4 . For the purpose of law enforcement, OF screening allows for simple, non-invasive specimen collection and rapid results,5 which allows traffic officers or DREs to easily operate the device.
In fact, some oral fluid screening devices are so easy-to-use they are specifically designed to be employed on-site. The portability helps officers screen drivers for recent drug use while he or she is detained during a traffic stop or following a crash. Collecting fluid samples as near the time of driving as possible provides law enforcement a stronger case in support of the observed signs and symptoms of impairment than a biological sample collected later.5 Thus, accurate and immediate drug screening results provide field officers tremendous confidence to confirm or dispel suspicions.
While many OF screening devices are available to law enforcement, each have their own unique features and functionality. In 2021, NHTSA evaluated multiple onsite oral fluid drug screening technologies, and recognized the Dräger DrugTest® 5000 as the top performing solution for its accuracy, reliability, resistance to interference, and the resistance of its consumables to extreme temperatures and humidity.6
Examining a Proven Oral Fluid Drug Test Solution
As an international leader in medical and safety technology, Dräger’s historical work with law enforcement in 1953 was part of the revolution of roadside impairment checks, starting with measuring breath alcohol content. Now, Dräger recognizes the need for officers to be able to detect drugs; therefore, developed the DrugTest 5000, a two-step oral fluid drug screening device made for officers on-the-go.
Step one is the DrugTest 5000 Screening Kit — this simple kit includes a ready-to-use cassette with a built-in OF sample collector and volume adequacy indicator. Step two is the DrugTest 5000 Analyzer — a rechargeable, fully automated analyzer provides drug analysis on site and in a matter of minutes.
Dräger understood the pain points law enforcement agencies face and developed the DrugTest 5000 with the key features for today’s officer:
- Accuracy — The DrugTest 5000 accurately screens for and positively detects drugs of abuse, including amphetamines, methamphetamines, opiates, cocaine, benzodiazepines, methadone, ketamine, and marijuana (THC). Accuracy is extremely important to identify which drug is impairing the driver at a certain level during the time of incident.
- Simplicity — In the past, roadside drug screening involved the collection of urine or blood samples — those are difficult, invasive, and even embarrassing methods to conduct in the field. OF screening systems are non-invasive by design, and the DrugTest 5000 is elegantly simple-to-use — the face of the device has three buttons: a power button, an up arrow, and a down arrow.
- Hygienic — The DrugTest 5000 Test Kit’s self-sampling cassettes allow donors to collect their own oral fluid sample. This is safer for officers, because when a cassette is hygienically handled, an officer does not come into contact with the donor’s saliva, minimizing risk of contact and evidence tampering. Self-sampling is less invasive and intimidating to drivers, and thus they are more likely to consent to providing a sample.6
- Rapid Results — Receiving rapid drug screening results is imperative when detaining an impaired driver on the roadside. The DrugTest 5000 indicates the presence of eight different types of psychoactive drugs, with the results for cannabis appearing in roughly eight minutes, and the results for other drugs appearing in as few as five minutes.
- Law enforcement is the first line of defense in protecting the public against drug-impaired drivers. As DREs are limited, relaxed drug laws lead to increases in usage, equipping officers with the right tools to deter, detect, and defuse drugged driving incidents is imperative for the safety of all who share the road. Oral fluid drug screening is a viable and proven solution that can support officers’ heroic efforts and ultimately save lives.