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Authorities open campaign against driving on drugs

From Paul Courson, CNN
  • National campaign kicked off against driving after taking drugs
  • Over-the-counter, prescription and illegal drugs targeted
  • Cases often go unrecognized, national drug policy official says

Washington (CNN) -- Add driving while on drugs -- even it's just cold medicine -- to the list of distractions behind the wheel to which authorities are giving special attention.

National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, a former police chief in Seattle, said drivers need to know they might be impaired if they have taken prescription or over-the-counter drugs, just as with illegal drugs.

"Drugs adversely affect driver judgment, driver reaction time, their motor skills and their memory," said Kerlikowske, telling reporters the effects can be similar to those of driving under the influence of alcohol.

But, unlike the long-standing strong anti-drunken driving laws, Kerlikowske said, "too often, inadequate drugged driving laws allow people who drive after taking drugs to evade prosecution and avoid responsibility," including that of seeking treatment for any drug dependency.

At a news conference Tuesday announcing a public awareness campaign, Kerlikowske said, "A number of these cases are going unrecognized by even law enforcement professionals." He called for increased training of police to know when a driver might be on drugs, as well as increased recognition by the elderly that their medicines might affect the way they drive.

He was accompanied by Metropolitan (Washington) Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier, and David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Lending celebrity power to the event was professional race car, a nine-time competitor in the Indy 500.

Strickland told reporters the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend is a "high time" to be vigilant against driving while impaired on drugs or alcohol. "We have to end all aspects of impaired driving," Strickland said, urging those who get behind the wheel to "make sure you're driving attentively and aware."

D.C. police chief Lanier said, "I've seen first-hand a mother of four children lose her life from a drugged driver in this city, and I don't ever want to see that again."

She added, "I hope this campaign, like our drunk driving campaigns over the years, takes hold quickly."

And Sarah Fisher, who drove her first Indy 500 at the age of 19, said, "To be behind the wheel, whether you're at the Indianapolis 500 or on the streets of our nation, you simply have to be at your best."

Kerlikowske summed up the event by saying it's time to expand the campaign against alcohol and driving, to now include drugs and other distractions behind the wheel.

"The difficulty has been that we have had for almost 40 years now a huge focus on alcohol and impaired driving," he said, "meanwhile, text driving, distracted driving and drugged driving as part of that have kind of remained under the radar screen."