Opinion: Michigan must do more to save lives from drugged driving

Brian Swift

Michiganians over the age of 21 can now purchase recreational marijuana legally. Many are celebrating. But legalization brings with it a major threat — an increase in drug-impaired driving.

Drugged driving is dangerous, even deadly. I know that reality firsthand. My parents were killed by a driver high on marijuana in the Upper Peninsula in 2013. They had just retired and were beginning to live out their golden years. While I miss them every day, it's hardest around the holidays.

Michigan's leaders have ensured that the state is well-positioned to mitigate the threat of drugged driving and save other families from the grief of losing loved ones, Swift writes.

Fortunately, Michigan's leaders have ensured that the state is well-positioned to mitigate the threat of drugged driving and save other families from the grief of losing loved ones. The state recently expanded a successful pilot program of oral fluid testing technology, which enables police officers to screen drivers' saliva for the presence of drugs — including marijuana — at the roadside.

Now, legislators must continue their work — by making roadside testing for drug-impaired drivers a part of permanent state law when the pilot phase finishes next year.

Driving under the influence of marijuana is just as dangerous as driving drunk. It impairs motor skills, reaction time, and judgment. Hitting the road within three hours of consuming cannabis nearly doubles the risk of having a collision, according to an analysis published in BMJ, a medical journal.

Drugged driving is sadly common. More than 10 million people drive under the influence of illicit drugs each year. Nearly 6 million people annually drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the same time.

Many Michiganians, like my parents, have lost their lives because of drug-impaired drivers. In 2018 alone, 247 people across the state died in drugged-driving accidents.

Absent good policy-making, that number will increase. Impaired driving has surged in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. After Colorado, Oregon and Washington green-lit legal cannabis, the three states "experienced a 5.2% higher police-reported crash rate overall than would have been expected had they not legalized recreational marijuana," according to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

To combat drugged driving — and prevent unnecessary deaths — police officers must be able to test impaired drivers for drugs at the roadside. Such testing can allow law enforcement to get high drivers off the road, immediately, before they do harm to themselves and others. It can also deter people who have consumed cannabis — and other impairing drugs — from hitting the road in the first place.

After my parents were killed, I shared my family's story with state Sen. Thomas Casperson — and found he was receptive to the need for roadside drug testing. Eventually, state lawmakers passed the Barbara J. and Thomas J. Swift Law, which initiated the oral fluid drug-testing pilot in five counties.

In February, officials released the program's results. They were remarkable. Eighty-eight of the 92 results collected with the oral fluid drug screening device — called SoToxa, developed by the healthcare company Abbott — at the roadside were later confirmed by an independent laboratory or blood test. Consequently, officials recommended expanding the pilot. In October, lawmakers did so. Now, officers in nearly every county in Michigan are using SoToxa. This effort will make Michigan's roadways much safer.

As I reflect on the act of violence that took my parents' lives, I am grateful that Michigan is taking steps to combat drugged driving, so that no other family suffers the way mine has. Now, the state must cement roadside oral fluid testing into law statewide. In doing so, Michigan can serve as a model for states nationwide.