When Martinsburg resident Mary Smith—who asked us not to use her real name—noticed a young woman slumped over the steering wheel in a nearby car, she immediately jumped out to help.
Banging on the car window didn’t help at first, but the driver came around after a couple of minutes. Suddenly without warning, the driver sped away down a nearby road and was soon out of sight.
Smith knew exactly what happened. Her son is a heroin addict.
“Nodding off like that by heroin users isn’t new to me. I’ve seen it before and wondered right away if she’d just shot up right there,” she said.
“What’s even worse is that we’d both been there waiting on a school bus. So did she shoot up while a child was there too? And then just taking off flying down the road meant other people were also in danger. And they didn’t even know it,” she said.
Little does she know, but this is only the tip of West Virginia’s growing drugged driving problem.
Drugged driving now accounts for approximately one-fourth of all state DUI arrests, and isn’t just limited to opioid abuse.
Huntington police officer Joey Koher, West Virginia’s drug recognition expert, trains other law enforcement officers across the state how to spot and respond to drug-impaired drivers.
Though relatively new, this very real public safety threat is fueled by the state’s growing heroin and prescription drug epidemic, he said.
“Driving impaired, say under the influence of alcohol isn’t new and people pretty much know what that’s all about. Drugged driving, however, is a growing problem on state roads, so much so that you just don’t always know the condition of a driver who is right beside you,” he said.
“Our drugged driving epidemic is following the drug epidemic we have in this country. And a lot of it is geared toward the opioid issue that we are seeing, but recreational drugs and pharmaceuticals are also part of it.”
The percentage of drugged driving arrests has been rising steadily in recent years, said Jennifer Floyd of the Governors Highway Safety Program.
In 2015, slightly more than 25 percent of the state’s DUI arrests involved drugs, as opposed to 3.74 percent in 2011. And it’s getting worse.
“Fast forward to now in 2016 and right around 30 to 32 percent of our DUI arrests are drug related,” Koher said. Drugged drivers often don’t even know they are dangerous.
“It’s nothing to pull people over and ultimately arrest them for DUI, and they make it a point to tell you they haven’t been drinking,” he said. “But they have been shooting heroin, sometimes right in the vehicle. They still think the only problem is drinking and driving.”
Police officers also face new challenges associated with charging a driver with being drug impaired.
“For example, is the impairment due to an injury, illness or other medical complication, or is it drug related? And if the impairment is due to drugs which category (or combination of categories) of drugs is the most likely source of impairment,” he said.
Old roadside methods, such as a breathalyzer, for determining sobriety aren’t helpful now with drugged driving.
“West Virginia used to be a breath-test only state, so that’s all we could require and there could only be a (driver’s license) revocation if we’d used a breath test. But if we pulled you over and you were DUI drugs, a breath test wasn’t going to help. That changed in 2013 when there was a change to allow our ability to require a blood test to determine if a driver is drug impaired,” he said.
New drugs also present new problems.
“But with the ever growing trend of clandestine drugs, people can come up with unusual concoctions we would like to see the legal definition to include any substance that impairs your ability to operate a vehicle safely,” he said.
Abusing a variety of drugs at one time compounds the problem.
“People are dosing up on gabapentin – an anti-epileptic medication used to treat nerve pain or even restless leg syndrome – when they can’t get their heroin or OxyContin or Lortab just to curb their drug appetite. There is just a lot of abuse like this with it all across the country,” he said.
“Ironically this is the drug that doctors have been prescribing to try and get away from the old opioid medications by treating inflammation rather than cutting off the pain. But in large doses it can really impair you, especially when used in conjunction with other depressant drugs,” he said.
Polydrug abuse is increasingly common among opioid addicts and results in “combined drug intoxication,” he said. Lab results from 500 blood samples collected from drivers showed just how big this problem has become.
“We weren’t seeing just mono drug use (just using one drug), because there was so much polydrug use in more than one category being consumed at the same time. Sixty seven percent tested positive for more than one drug with the big ones being cannabis (marijuana), alprazolam (Xanax) and quite a bit of the opioids,” he said.
This analysis revealed another, more disturbing trend.
“Most of these people weren’t just using one or two drugs, it was more like four or five.”
“And several of the toxilogical substances came back with more than 10 compounds found in their blood as far a drugs in their system. So it shows that polydrug use is really, really rampant in our state.”
Captain Paul Blume, who heads up the Southern Regional Highway Safety Program, has seen plenty of these cases in the seven counties he oversees: Raleigh, Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Braxton, Pocahontas and Webster.
“We deal with drugged driving because it is becoming so prevalent, and is definitely a reality people need to know about. I would say that in the last few years it has become just about as common as impaired driving with alcohol in many areas. It is mostly prescription medications that people in our area are getting high on,” he said.
Not surprisingly, neighboring states have similar problems on their roads.
In Pennsylvania, almost four in 10 arrests for driving under the influence in 2014 involved drugs, according to state Department of Transportation data.
At that same time, the number of DUI arrests were decreasing but drug-related DUI arrests shot up by about 10 percent from the previous year.
Interstate highways mean the situation is fluid, and subject to change—quickly.
Maryland State Police officials refer to Interstate 81 as the heroin highway because it is a major corridor for drug trafficking.
There’s also a strong connection between Interstate 70 and heroin being transported to Eastern Panhandle cities like Martinsburg. Other roadways, including U.S. 340 and W.Va. 9, are also being used to move heroin.
Lt. Mike Flaherty, commander of the Maryland State Police Hagerstown Barrack stressed the importance of interstate cooperation when he spoke at a recent regional legislative meeting.
He cited the approximately 12 miles of I-81 in Washington County, Maryland, as a particularly dangerous part of the highway which also runs through Berkeley County.
“There are more impaired drivers on I-81 driving under the influence of drugs than driving under the influence of alcohol,” the Martinsburg Journal Newspaper reported.