'Impaired driving' means more than alcohol

Sept. 13, 2018

A trooper talking to a man during a traffic stop

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “driving while intoxicated?” You probably get a vision of someone having a few too many drinks at a bar or party, thinking they’re more sober than they are, and getting behind the wheel – often with disastrous and even deadly consequences. But alcohol isn’t the only substance that can intoxicate a person, and the presence of those other substances may not be as obvious, especially to the untrained eye.

Fortunately, there are 224 well-trained eyes here in Minnesota. That’s 224 law enforcement officers from 112 agencies who are certified as Drug Recognition Evaluators (DREs). Minnesota State Patrol Lieutenant Don Marose, who coordinates the program and teaches the training, puts it this way: “People don’t realize that drug-impaired driving is against the law.”

The training to become a DRE is considered one of the most rigorous for law enforcement officers. It starts with nine days of classroom learning and finishes with two to three weeks of certification training. Once certified, DREs are prepared to detect drug-impaired drivers – that is, they can tell whether a driver is under the influence of drugs alone, alcohol and drugs combined, or an injury or illness whose symptoms look like alcohol or drug impairment.

Next question in this quiz: What do you think of when you hear the word “drug”? Marijuana? Crack? Meth? Something stealthily handed off in a small baggie on a street corner or at a party? When Minnesota’s DRE program started in the early 1990s, those are precisely the influences DREs detected most among impaired drivers.

“But now we see prescription meds,” says Lt. Marose. “We see people who got them legitimately. But there’s no free pass, even if the doctor gave it to you.” To illustrate his point, Lt. Marose notes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest impaired driving campaign: “If you feel different, you drive different.”

Lt. Marose encourages his trainees to ask drivers two questions during a traffic stop. The first and most expected one is “Do you use any drugs?” Most people, thinking of illicit drugs, would answer a resounding (and truthful) “No!” But then comes the second question: “Do you take any medications?” Too much of a prescription medication could impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

“Alcohol is legal,” Lt. Marose points out. “But if you take too much of it, you’re driving impaired. So the substance doesn’t matter to us; it’s the fact that they’re impaired.”

In 1990, the state of Minnesota had five convictions for drug-impaired driving. That number has risen to over 2,000. That increase is thanks in large part to the DRE program.