Despite the Distractions, Impaired Driving Enforcement Must Remain A High Priority

By Steven R. Casstevens, Chief of Police
Buffalo Grove Police Department, Buffalo Grove, IL
President, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Law enforcement agencies throughout the country are faced with personnel shortages and reduced budgets often limiting their ability to combat impaired driving. COVID-19 and the recent civil unrest incidents have added to these limitations. Yet during these difficult and trying times, impaired driving traffic fatalities, which were once on the decline, are increasing in many jurisdictions.

Impaired driving has a profound impact on society and public safety. It claims the lives of innocent victims, costing millions of dollars in property damage, medical care, and criminal justice expenditures. Despite an overall decrease in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities since the 1980’s, over 10,000 people die in alcohol-related driving crashes annually (NHTSA, December 2019). Addressing impaired driving must continue to be a priority despite the hinderances and distractions faced by law enforcement today.

In the past several decades, awareness of the dangers of alcohol-impaired driving has increased. Public and private entities have focused on the drinking and driving safety issues helping change social perceptions. Plus, important legislative actions have been enacted to help in reducing it.  Yet, nearly one in three of all roadway deaths still involves an alcohol-impaired driver, proving that more work is needed. However, in today’s world, impaired driving includes a multitude of other impairing substances and not just alcohol. Because of this, law enforcement leaders should endorse and support the use of electronic search warrants (e-warrants) for blood draws for impaired driving arrests, especially when multi-substances are suspected.

E-warrants, along with drug recognition experts (DREs) are two effective tools in aiding law enforcement in obtaining impaired driving evidence, especially in drugged driving cases. Our understanding of how many drivers are operating vehicles while under the influence of multiple impairing substances remains unclear. This is partially because DUI is the only crime where officers typically end their investigation once minimal evidence is obtained. Meaning if a breath test of .08 or more is obtained, most officers do not pursue a blood test, even if other drugs may be suspected. From a law enforcement perspective, one of the primary impaired driving arrest challenges is obtaining a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or evidence of drug use. If the suspect refuses a breath test, or if the officer thinks there may be drug impairment and the suspect refuses a blood or urine test, the officer is often left with limited evidence unless a warrant can be obtained quickly.

In times of reduced budgets, fewer officers, and other distractions taking time from traffic enforcement, effective strategies and streamlined approaches are needed to address the impaired driving problem. Besides saving lives and making our communities safer, a primary goal of impaired driving enforcement is to raise the public’s perception that if they drive while impaired, they will be stopped and arrested. This can be achieved by improving officer detection of alcohol and/or other drug impairment. Police leaders should ensure that their patrol officers are regularly updated in the Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) training, and strongly consider Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training, especially with the increased drug involvement in motor vehicle crashes. To assist states in expanding ARIDE and DRE training, the IACP is offering funding opportunities through the Drug Impaired Driving Training (DIDET) program. Additional information regarding this funding is available at https://www.theiacp.org/projects/did-enforcement-training.

Law enforcement should also consider collecting and distributing statistical information regarding locations and times that most commonly generate impaired driving related crashes. In times of limited resources, directed patrol strategies can greatly assist in reducing impaired driving incidents. In addition, successful strategies involve implementing strong partnerships, because law enforcement alone is rarely effective in reducing or eliminating the impaired driving problem. Police leaders should not limit their efforts to considering what their officers can do. Instead, it is important to also consider what other community stakeholders, such as education, prevention, private businesses, and others can do with their officers in contributing to reducing impaired driving, especially during times of limited resources and distractions.