In 2015, NHTSA carried out a project in California with commercially available oral fluid test devices to determine their utility in the identification of drugged drivers, and the results are expected to be released sometime in 2016.
In 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) carried out the first national survey of drivers which included the testing of biological specimens (blood and oral fluid) for illegal, prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The results showed a 97% agreement between the two sample types, indicating that oral fluid is a viable alternative to blood for the detection of drugs in drivers. Overall, drugs were identified in more than 16% of drivers, with marijuana accounting for almost half of the positives. The study was repeated in 2013-2014 with an increase to 20% in overall positives (8% to 12% for cannabis).
The states of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska along with the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana in adults, and several more states are likely to approve similar legislation in the coming months. There are significant concerns that the prevalence of drugged driving will further increase, causing more crashes and potential fatalities on the roads. Even though many drugs were included in the NHTSA analytical profile, over 90% of the positive specimens contained one or more of the following drug classes: THC (marijuana), cocaine, opiates (opioid analgesics), benzodiazepines (sedatives) or amphetamines (stimulants). Therefore, the development of scientific instruments which can reliably detect most of these drugs, preferably at the roadside, is an area of focused interest within the law enforcement community.
Unlike alcohol, there is no universally accepted limit for illicit drugs that law enforcement officials can use to determine impairment in drivers. Currently, if a driver is negative for alcohol, an examination by a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) may follow alone or in combination with field sobriety tests; if drugs are suspected, a blood (or urine) sample may be collected for laboratory analysis. From the time of the traffic stop to collection of a biological sample may take several hours, during which time the drugs are being metabolized through the body and decreasing in concentration; collection and analysis of a sample closer to the time of the incident could reduce the possibility of a negative drug result.
Because oral fluid can be taken rapidly, does not require the presence of a medical professional and is a sterile sample, the potential for its collection and analysis at the roadside using mobile test instruments has been an area of interest for NHTSA and other state agencies.
In 2015, NHTSA carried out a project in California with commercially available oral fluid test devices to determine their utility in the identification of drugged drivers, and the results are expected to be released sometime in 2016 – we await the outcome with interest. If the instruments are determined to be reliable and useful, then drugged driving investigations in the U.S. will be significantly changed, law enforcement will have scientific tools available to them to help identify drugged drivers in a timely manner and most importantly, our roads will be safer.
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