All across the United States, opioid abuse and overdoses have skyrocketed over the past decade. Business Insider reports that the governors of Arizona, Florida and Maryland have all declared states of emergency, in order to grant them access to federal grant moneys through the Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to the damage opiate users inflict upon themselves. Impaired drivers are responsible for thousands of traffic deaths every year, and hundreds in West Virginia.
The Washington Post reports that 2015 was the first year in which drugged driving caused more traffic fatalities than drunk driving. When accidents do occur, it is important that car accident injury victims hold impaired drivers accountable for their actions, so that the roads of West Virginia can be made safer for everyone.
Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health reports that the number of opioid-impaired drivers who caused fatal traffic accidents in the United States increased seven times between 1995 and 2015. While this exponential growth is partially due to the increased use of opioid drugs, it is also the result of legal difficulties in enforcing impaired driving laws.
Why Drugged Driving Laws Are Difficult to Enforce
West Virginia law does criminalize impaired driving. Section 17C-5-2 of the West Virginia Code makes it a crime to drive while under the influence of any controlled substance or drug. When such driving causes bodily injury to another person, the defendant must be sentenced to a jail term of at least one day, up to one year, and a fine between $200 and $1000. When such driving causes serious bodily injury or death to another person, the defendant is guilty of a felony, and the penalties are much more severe.
However: despite the fact that driving under the influence of opioid drugs is a crime, this law is incredibly difficult to enforce and prosecute. Like most other states, West Virginia has not been able to set a blood level at which impaired driving can be inferred. Unlike alcohol, researchers have not yet been able to confidently assess the point at which humans are likely to be impaired by such drugs. This makes it more difficult for officers to establish probable cause that a driver is impaired by drugs. The Illinois Herald-Review interviewed officers to learn more about the challenges faced by drug recognition experts. One such DRE reported that he is often called to a scene when the suspect’s blood alcohol content does not match his or her observed level impairment. This guesswork makes it difficult for officers to enforce the law, and it also jeopardizes the important constitutional rights of those defendants who are suspected of impaired driving. Both sides deserve a better solution to the problem.
The inexact nature of drug impairment also makes it more difficult for prosecutors prosecute charges of impaired driving. Without set blood levels to establish impairment, a jury must generally infer it from testimony about the driver’s behavior. Medical expert witnesses are extremely limited in the effects of impairment to which they may testify. Without set limits, testimony that a driver should have been impaired is entirely speculative, and generally inadmissible.
Despite these challenges to enforcing impaired driving criminal laws, accident victims still have the right to be compensated for injuries caused by impaired driving.
An experienced West Virginia auto accident attorney will both hold impaired drivers responsible for their dangerous behavior, and also defend injury victims’ legal rights to secure the compensation to which they are legally entitled.