HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville Police say impaired driving is on the rise, and so are traffic fatalities in their jurisdiction. They want to let people know that driving while high is just as dangerous as driving drunk.
"Even though those are two different substances, they both impair the body in much similar fashions," said Sgt. Michael Nelson, who supervises the HPD DUI Task Force. Of the drivers they pull over who are high on marijuana he said, "They don't have the ability to multitask, they are absent minded. And they aren't really good drivers at all."
Recent AAA research showed 14.8 million drivers report that in the past 30 days, they've gotten behind the wheel an hour or less after using marijuana. And 70% of them think it's unlikely they'll get caught for it. The findings also show that some Americans may not realize the dangers of driving while high.
"They look at it sometimes as smoking a cigarette," Sgt. Nelson said of the people they pull over. "They're really relaxed about it until they realize that, 'Hey, I can go to jail for this.' And often times, they do."
He explained that law enforcement is paying attention.
"The impairment on substances other than alcohol are on the rise," he said, "especially when you have marijuana legalization in other states where people are going out, and bringing it down here."
He added, "Smoking marijuana and driving is as dangerous as drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel of a vehicle." Not only that, but it's illegal to possess it.
Huntsville Police have three more officers going through specialized drug recognition training. Three are already certified as drug recognition experts (DRE's) under the process.
Nelson explained why it's necessary to have the DRE's on the force when it comes to impaired drivers: "The officer knows they are impaired, but they're not sure what they're impaired on. We will call one of the DRE's out and they'll go out and do a twelve-step evaluation process on the person, and they'll decide what type of drug that person is under."
The DRE process has been criticized by organizations like the ACLU for what they call "deeply flawed" techniques. But Nelson said it's backed up by studies and standards when we asked him about it.
"In my opinion, there is no voodoo science to it, as it's been called," he explained. The process the DRE's used are backed up by studies. It's not like we come together and say, 'Hey, let's do these 12 things and we can wild guess what substance this person is under.'"
Huntsville's other three DRE officers are expected to be certified at the beginning of July after completing the training to become drug recognition experts.