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Combating impaired driving

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Tue, Jun 11th 2019 10:00 am
Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard addresses the audience at the AAA New York State Impaired Driving Summit. (Photo by Lindsay Kensy/courtesy of AAA of Western and Central New York)
Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard addresses the audience at the AAA New York State Impaired Driving Summit. (Photo by Lindsay Kensy/courtesy of AAA of Western and Central New York)

Impaired Driving Summit recap

By AAA of Western and Central New York

AAA Western and Central New York President Tony Spada opened the AAA New York State Impaired Driving Summit on June 7 in Buffalo citing that more than 10,000 deaths a year occur on American roads due to driver impairment and something needs to be done about it.

“Everyone in this room knows of someone who was in an automobile crash,” Spada said. “One in three of those crashes involved some level of impairment.”

The AAA summit was designed to offer a high level discussion regarding the facts behind driver impairment, to educate the audience on the topic, and to help AAA build a plan to accelerate the awareness of the cause and effects of that impairment.

Mark Schroeder, commissioner of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, and Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard both thanked AAA for hosting this important discussion, and emphasized the importance of getting the word out to drivers of all ages about the impact and dangers of alcohol and drug impairment when driving.

“Keeping our roadways safe is my highest priority,” Schroeder said. “Events like this are instrumental – they’re very important in furthering the dialogue and implementing strategies that have a real impact on our communities.”

“The social stigma around driving drunk has certainly changed in the last few decades,” Howard said. “Hopefully, with the help of the people in this room, we will continue to make it unacceptable to drive impaired.”

Jake Nelson, AAA’s national director of traffic safety advocacy and research, addressed the audience, noting that, if impaired driving was a disease, the country would commit huge sums of dollars to combat this epidemic. He also explained why there is no valid roadside test to detect marijuana use.

“Since marijuana was legalized in the state of Washington, impaired crashes have increased by 100 percent,” Nelson said. “Smoking marijuana and then getting behind the wheel doubles your risk of a crash.”

Elizabeth Carey, director of public affairs for AAA WCNY, lead an informative panel discussion with New York State President of the Chiefs of Police John Aresta, New York State Trooper and Troop A PIO James O’Callaghan, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, and Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, M.D., from Dent Neurologic Institute and head of the Dent Cannabis Clinic.

Aresta emphasized the need for greater resources from the governments to pay for the overtime costs associated with officers in training to become drug recognition experts (DREs).

“Legalizing recreational marijuana would necessitate retiring a large number of police K-9 dogs that are trained to detect marijuana, which would also be very expensive,” Aresta said.

O’Callaghan pointed out daily challenges with enforcing laws and noted a greater number of these impaired driving crashes occur during drivetime and not in the evening when typical “Stop DWI” checkpoints occur. He expressed the urgency to get the word out to kids regarding drugs at a very early age.

“We have to start early. We have to start educating in the schools,” O’Callaghan said. “The best thing we’ve done is to partner with our agencies and other organizations to spread awareness and outreach to impact young drivers.”

Flynn stressed the need for a greater number of DREs to patrol roads and explained how a DRE’s opinion at the time of the incident increases the ability to convict.

“Some of the local police agencies do not have any DREs on staff at this time, and it makes things difficult for them,” Flynn said. “I strongly urge people to use Uber or Lyft for a ride home, rather than getting behind the wheel.”

Mechtler spoke about the four levels of cannabis and the difference between CBD, medical marijuana, and recreational marijuana that contains various levels of THC – the psychoactive element in cannabis.

“CBD has significant medical benefits and does not provide the ‘high,’ while THC gets users high and also impedes growth in the brain of adolescents and young adults,” Mechtler said.

Dr. Fran Gengo, also from Dent Neurologic Institute, explained to the audience how prescription drugs affect individuals differently. Gengo warned older adults to be aware that many teens are stealing pills from their grandparents’ medicine cabinets.

“Impairment is a medical condition and it’s important to understand that as opposed to just treating it as a law,” Gengo said. “Impaired driving on drugs and impaired driving on alcohol are two very different paradigms.”

Jennifer Homendy, from the National Transportation Safety Board, spoke on her mission to eliminate unnecessary deaths occurring on our roads. Homendy explained the NTSB’s position when it comes lowering the legal blood alcohol content from .08 to .05.

“The state of Utah has already made that change, as have many countries around the globe,” Homendy said. “In 2017, a third of all traffic fatalities in New York are due to alcohol impairment. Thousands more suffer from life-altering injuries.”

For more information on impaired driving education, visit: https://exchange.aaa.com/impaired-driving/.

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