Rules of the Road

Half our fatalities involve alcohol or drugs — so, what is Washington’s DUI culture?

Washington state arrests for driving under the influence

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs collect crime statistics from agencies that serve about 92% of the state. The most recent numbers available are from 2017.
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The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs collect crime statistics from agencies that serve about 92% of the state. The most recent numbers available are from 2017.

Many times I’ve referenced data showing that more than half of all traffic fatalities in Washington state involve an impaired driver.

When stated without more context, it’s easy to reach a false conclusion about impaired driving, and here’s the myth: If half of all fatal crashes involve impairment, lots of people must be driving impaired. In reality, few people drive impaired, and a recent survey of Washington state drivers confirms it.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission partnered with researchers at Montana State University to understand Washington’s current culture on driving under the influence of cannabis and alcohol (DUICA).

Before we get into their responses, let’s address why they chose to study that particular combination.

Over the past decade, traffic fatalities involving drivers impaired only by alcohol has slightly decreased. That’s good news, right?

But fatal crashes involving drivers impaired by cannabis have increased.

Most concerning, the number of fatal crashes involving drivers who have two or more impairing substances in their system has skyrocketed. And the most common pairing is cannabis and alcohol.

To give some perspective, in the three-year span from 2015 to 2017 there were 174 deaths from drivers impaired by alcohol only, 149 deaths from drivers impaired by one drug other than alcohol and 466 deaths involving drivers impaired by two or more substances.

Here’s the actual good news: Most Washington drivers don’t drive impaired, most have a negative view of driving impaired and most will intervene when they see someone about to drive impaired.

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Washington State Patrol Trooper Guy Gill retrieves the personal belongings of a woman arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence off South Bay Road in 2012. Whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, illegal drugs, prescription medication or a combination, here’s the new mindset: If you feel different, you drive different. Most Washingtonians say they do not DUI or DUICA. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

To break it down, here are 12-month reported driving behaviors:

78% don’t drive within two hours of consuming alcohol.

85% don’t drive within two hours of consuming cannabis.

91% don’t drive within two hours of consuming cannabis and alcohol.

Note that the two-hour window was chosen for research purposes, not because it’s safe. It is only safe to drive when you’re no longer impaired.

Depending on how much alcohol or cannabis is consumed, that could anything from an hour or two for one drink with a meal to the next day for heavy consumption. With so much at risk, the only strategy is to play it safe.

Most Washington adults (81%) have a negative attitude toward Driving Under the Influence of Cannabis and Alcohol (DUICA), and most believe it is unacceptable to DUICA (83%).

In an unsurprising research conclusion, people who perceive DUICA as acceptable are four-and-a-half times more likely to do it.

Of those who do drive after consuming cannabis and alcohol, there are a couple of dangerous myths.

Seventy-seven percent of those drivers felt anxious after drinking alcohol and used cannabis to calm down before driving. Fifty-two percent of those drivers felt too impaired after drinking and used cannabis to “sober up.”

I feel like it’s obvious, but given that half the people who DUICA think cannabis reduces their alcohol impairment, I’ll say it: It doesn’t.

Coffee, cannabis, caffeine, cocaine, any other substance that starts with “C”, any substance that starts with a letter other than “C” — none of it will get you sober if you’re impaired. The only thing that works is time.

Given that a strong majority of Washingtonians don’t DUICA, the odds are high that you don’t do it. Plus, you’re reading an article about traffic safety, which suggests the odds are even better.

But this still might be about you, in a good way.

The research found that among adults in Washington in a situation to intervene, most (81%) take steps to prevent someone from driving impaired. That could be offering them a ride, calling a cab, giving them a place to stay until they’re sober or, if none of those options work, calling the police.

Presumably, there are even more people who wanted to take action, but might not have had the courage to do so. If that describes you, and you encounter someone who is impaired but wants to drive, I hope knowing that most of the people around you have your back will be the inspiration you need to intervene.

Overall, we have a strong positive culture in Washington when it comes to DUICA.

The problem is that the few people who do engage in the high-risk behavior create an out-sized threat to our community.

Because of that, law enforcement agencies across the state are conducting extra DUI enforcement now and through the Labor Day long weekend.

In the enforcement world, we’ve moved beyond drunk driving; now officers look for impairment from any kind of substance. Whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, illegal drugs, prescription medication or a combination, here’s the new mindset: If you feel different, you drive different.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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