Depending on where you live, it’s known by many different abbreviations — DUI, DWI, OWI — but they are all short for driving (or operating a motor vehicle) while impaired or intoxicated.
Whatever the language, when most people hear these references, they probably first think of someone who has had too much alcohol to drink and then got behind the wheel.
For decades, police and highway safety officials and many other groups have gotten the word out about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Indeed, most people likely know that the legal limit for blood alcohol content while driving in Michigan (and most of the United States) is 0.08 percent. Likewise, they also probably have a pretty good idea about how much alcohol is in various drinks and the notion that the body generally can metabolize about one standard drink per hour.
Despite this, driving under the influence of alcohol remains a very common offense in the court system.
However, there is another section of the “driving under the influence” law that gets far less attention — driving under the influence of drugs. More specifically, in addition to alcohol, the law forbids driving under the influence of “controlled substance, or other intoxicating substance.”
Often when someone does think of “drugged driving,” he or she likely conjures up an image of a someone strung out on methamphetamine or heroin getting behind the wheel.
While that scenario does happen, local law enforcement officials say in recent years the more common scenario is people getting behind the wheel who are impaired by one or more prescription drugs.
In some cases, it could be someone with a long-standing prescription drug abuse problem, in other instances, it could be someone who was just recently prescribed some painkillers for a recent injury or surgery.
Understanding the law
While most people understand the 0.08 percent alcohol limit, there are other ways you can run afoul of the driving under the influence law:
First, even if your blood alcohol content is less than 0.08, you still could be charged with driving while intoxicated or visibly impaired. The police and, ultimately the prosecutor, would just need to show that you had consumed alcohol and that because of it, your “ability to operate a motor vehicle in a normal manner was substantially lessened,” or your “ability to operate the motor vehicle is visibly impaired.”
These more subjective tests are also what applies to driving under the influence of a controlled substance such as a prescription drug.
Although there is no “bright line” test for prescription controlled substances, there is for illegal drugs, or what’s known as “schedule 1” controlled substances.
For these drugs it is illegal to drive with any amount in your system. The list of schedule 1 controlled substances is very long, but generally, they are the illegal drugs that most people think of, such as heroin or methamphetamine.
For prescription drugs, such as some well known painkillers that contain oxycodone, and many more it’s not automatically illegal to drive after you’ve taken them, but also, just because you have a prescription for a drug, doesn’t mean you are OK to drive after taking it either, Emmet County Prosecuting Attorney James Linderman said.
And it’s not just painkillers that can be an issue.
Other drugs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists among drugs that could in cause problems with driving to include:
— Prescription drugs for anxiety
— Some antidepressants
— Products containing codeine
— Some cold remedies and allergy products
— Sleeping pills
— Some diet pills, “stay awake” drugs, and other medications with stimulants (e.g. caffeine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine)
Linderman noted that combining these substances with each other, or with other substances such as alcohol or inhalants, can make it even more difficult to estimate the effects on a person’s ability to drive.
“It’s very subjective to begin with, and it varies widely from person to person,” Linderman said. “With an aging population and poly-substance abusers, it can become very difficult.”
Petoskey Department of Public Safety Director Matthew Breed said his officers are seeing more and more instances of people driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
In fact, he said just within the last week one of his public safety officers arrested a man on suspicion of driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
Breed said the incident involved dispatchers at 911 receiving multiple reports of a person driving very badly, who then went off the road twice and was involved in at least one crash. Breed said the man reported that he had taken two prescriptions, and that he was clearly under the influence of them.
He said one tool that has become available for officers is a new type of training that differs slightly from the standard field sobriety tests. The test is known as advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in the amount of people for are operating under the influence of prescription drugs,” Breed said. “It’s a more significant problem than people realize.”
Breed also said it can be very difficult for people — especially those who are new to taking a particular prescription — to know if its safe for them to drive.
So, what is the best advice for someone taking something that might affect their ability to drive?
First, Breed said, pay attention to warning labels that come on your prescriptions.
“If that label says it may affect your ability to drive or operate machinery, be careful,” he said. “Different people process those chemicals differently.”
Linderman also noted, “You better take the medications as prescribed, too.”
Breed added, “If you feel any type of effect after taking a medication, good judgement would dictate that you don’t drive.”
He noted that research shows that without any effects of drugs or alcohol, it typically takes a person about 3/4 of a second to perceive something while driving and another 3/4 of a second to take action.
He noted that in 1.5 seconds a vehicle traveling at 55 mph travels about 120 feet, and anything that adds to that response time could have tragic consequences.