DUI crackdowns to target drugs

Drivers line up at a DUI checkpoint. (AP file photo)

More and more, the 'I' in DUI means drugs.

Heading into Labor Day Weekend, as with many holiday weekends, Pennsylvania has begun cracking down on driving under the influence, and this year's effort "will highlight the increasing issue of drug-impaired drivers," says a statement from a partnership of law-enforcement agencies, public-safety advocates and PennDOT.

In 2012, 126 fatalities were blamed on 3,306 drug-related crashes, according to the group. Drunk driving, though, remained the biggest problem, with 11,956 alcohol-related crashes taking 404 lives.

More than 600 police departments will be taking part, with patrols and checkpoints among the measures "focusing on both alcohol and drug impaired drivers," according to another announcement, from the Pennsylvania DUI Association.

Arrests are way up since Pennsylvania started training state and local officers to better recognize drug-impaired drivers, said Cpl. David Andrascik, the trooper in charge of the effort to keep car keys out of the hands of the chemically impaired.

In 2004, about 5,500 drivers faced drug-related DUI charges, punishable by up to six months in jail. Last year, the number was just shy of 15,000, said Andrasick, coordinator of the state Drug Evaluation and Classification Program.

The program is part of a federal effort to combat drugged driving and raise public awareness, just as officials have hammered away about the dangers of alcohol-impairment and using cellphones while behind the wheel.

So far, the state program has trained 116 troopers and local police officers as drug-recognition experts, with another couple of dozen getting added to the ranks each year. Many other officers statewide have sharpened their skills through workshops and by working with trained colleagues, Andrasick said.

The penalties are stiff -- the same as for the worst category of drunk drivers, who exceed double the legal limit of .08 -- and can include jail time.

Drugged driving might even be more common than drunk driving, considering all the types of illegal drugs, prescribed medications, and over-the-counter remedies -- from allergy pills to sleep aids -- that drivers use, Andrascik said.

Marijuana is most common offender, followed roughly by anti-anxiety medications, like Xanax, Ativan and Valium; heroin and other opiates; and pain medications, Andrascik said.

Too often, drivers are under the influence of one or more drugs, sometimes alcohol as well.

"Nationally, over 50 percent of those arrested for DUI, often referred to as the $10,000 ride home, are poly drug users," who "consume multiple drugs from more than one category," according to the Pennsylvania DUI Association.

"Combining drugs and alcohol is a deadly cocktail for drivers," said director Stephen Erni.

Adding to the fear factor is that drugged driving happens throughout the day every day, without the same evening and weekend peaks seen with drunk driving, Andrascik said.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.