Nashville, TN (2017-03-27) Last week, the Tennessee Highway Safety Office (THSO) was joined by several other departments of state government, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other public safety partners to launch it’s new “Stop Drugged Driving” campaign to combat Tennessee’s recent spike in drugged-impaired driving crashes and fatalities.
“We had been praying and crying out to God that this crash did not involve our kids,” said Joey Leonard, the father of a victim of a 2015 drugged driver involved traffic crash. Leonard, and his wife Tammy, attended last week’s press conference and spoke about the crash that changed their lives. “Our worst fear had become our reality. We later learned that the driver of the other vehicle was impaired,” he added.
On October 12, 2015, a drugged driver crashed into a vehicle occupying 19-year-old Kassidy T. Leonard, 20-year-old William D. Griggs, and 12-day-old Kimberlynn Griggs. Their vehicle was hit head-on while traveling north on Highway 13 in Houston County. All three occupants were killed instantly.
The drugged driver survived the crash and was convicted on March 7, 2017, of three counts of vehicular homicide by driver intoxication and three counts of reckless vehicular homicide. Toxicology results indicated that he had oxycodone, methamphetamine, and amphetamine in his system. Sentencing is scheduled for April 24, 2017.
“Since 2015, more Tennessee traffic fatalities have involved a drugged driver than a drunk driver,” said Vic Donoho, Director of the THSO. “The purpose of our ‘Stop Drugged Driving’ campaign is to spread awareness, educate the public, and increase enforcement by advancing our Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program,” he said.
In 2015, there were 962 fatalities statewide, according to data provided by the Tennessee’s Integrated Traffic Analysis Network (TITAN). Approximately 47 percent (453) involved an impaired driver. 26 percent (252) involved a drunk driver, and 32 percent (312) involved a drugged driver.
TITAN’s definition of drugged-impaired driving means the investigating officer indicated that drug use contributed to the crash, or the driver tested positive for one or more of the following: marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), methamphetamines, and/or other controlled substances, possibly in addition to alcohol.
“At TBI, through the Tennessee Incident-Based Reporting System, we find that while arrests being made by law enforcement across the state are showing a decrease in alcohol-related arrests, the number of drugged-driving arrests is up significantly,” said Jason Locke, Deputy Director of the TBI. “It is clear that many drivers in Tennessee are operating motor vehicles while using alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs,” he added.
In 2016, the TBI tested blood samples from almost 20,000 driving-related offenses, Locke stated. Of these, 11,000 drivers tested over Tennessee’s legal limit for alcohol. The remaining 9,000 drivers tested for drugs. Results from the last two years show a marked increase in the percentage of drivers who tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main chemical component of marijuana. Locke also stated that the number of toxicology samples testing positive for methamphetamine has tripled in the last three years.
However, it’s not just illegal substances detected in the TBI’s toxicology results. According to Locke, prescription drug abuse is increasingly causing serious problems in Tennessee. Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, for example, has been found in one-third of the highway safety cases that were tested for drugs by the TBI.
“Everyone needs to think about the substances they and their loved ones are taking, including medications they are prescribed,” said Dr. Morgan McDonald, Assistant Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. “We encourage communication between individuals and providers regarding possible side effects and medication interactions, particularly before driving. Medication safety is everyone’s concern; if you see behavior that is concerning, act on that observation,” he added.
Data provided by the Tennessee Department of Health shows a drastic increase in the number of Tennessee drug overdose deaths in the past five years. In 2011, there were 1,062 deaths. In 2015, there were 1,451 deaths. For information related to treatment for substance use disorders, please visit www.taadas.org/our-programs-and-services/redline.