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Drugged driving: Police know to look for more than alcohol

Airborne shards of glass and metal suddenly pause over the smashed front of the totaled car frozen in time.

Posted on April 14, 2008 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on April 14, 2008 at 9:08 a.m.

Airborne shards of glass and metal suddenly pause over the smashed front of the totaled car frozen in time.

The sequence of images rewind: the occupants' heads and limbs seem to peel off the steering wheel and dashboard, the car re-forms and the occupants, two crash dummies, are seated comfortably in the car traveling in reverse.

Again in "real time," one dummy passes a smoldering joint to the other moments before the crash, concluding the commercial by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But if that example seems too dramatic to hit home, local police provide a simpler motivation to steer clear of drugged driving: arresting a driver for DUI, and they can prove it, even when the blood-alcohol test registers 0.00 percent.

"These drugs can affect the body in worse ways than alcohol does," said Elkhart Cpl. Ben Kruszynski, a drug recognition expert.

If police determine a driver is impaired by drugs -- even if the drugs are legally prescribed and consumed or the driver is not in possession of any illegal drugs -- they will be arrested and prosecuted.

Kruszynski, a police officer for 15 years, said he's probably stopped many drivers under the influence of drugs but didn't know it.

"I've probably let way too many people go and put more lives in danger," Kruszynski said. "I'm embarrassed by that, but I had no clue."

That is, until he was assigned to attend the Drug Recognition Expert school to become the city's first and only DRE officer in March 2007.

DRE-certified police officers follow a 12-step process to first determine whether a driver is drug-impaired and then which drug or drugs impaired the driver, Kruszynski said. The process is scientifically validated and standardized, Kruszynski said, meaning the evaluation must be conducted in the same manner every time and the evaluation report is admissible in court.

The program is designed to deter impaired driving by increasing the likelihood of getting caught, Kruszynski said. Kruszynski said drivers often believe DUI and OWI charges only relate to driving under the influence of alcohol.

In fact, Elkhart patrol officers are just recently looking beyond alcohol-related impairment for DUI arrests, Kruszynski said. Over the 10 months he was certified in 2007, Kruszynski said, he made only three DRE arrests.

But in the last three months, Elkhart police have arrested 15 drivers for driving under the influence of drugs, said Kruszynski, who is on call for the department 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Elkhart County Sheriff's Department also has two DRE officers, certified since December 2001.

Until recently, DRE has been an untapped resource in law enforcement, said Elkhart County Detective and DRE Officer Brian Holloman.

The DRE enforcement process focuses on impairment, Holloman said, making the arrest about preventing dangerous driving, not simply focusing on illicit drugs.

So no matter the source -- alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medications or over-the-counter drugs -- if it causes impairment while driving "they're risking their own safety and everybody else's too," Holloman said.

There are few trends in DRE arrests, Holloman and Kruszynski said.

In the county, more men are arrested, and more often than not, the drug category is cannabis, Holloman said.

In Elkhart, Kruszynski said, women are more often arrested for driving under the influence of depressants and analgesics. Men are more often arrested for driving impaired by cannabis.

Since March, Kruszynski's DRE evaluation has led to the arrests of 18 men, women, boys and girls ranging in ages from 14 to 61 for driving under the influence of at least one of the seven drug categories.

Kruszynski recommends those taking prescription medications or using over-the-counter products, such as energy pills, should follow the instructions that come with the medication or product. Take the correct amount in the recommended period of time, he said, and if it warns against driving, don't drive.

As for illegal drugs, Holloman said, "Don't smoke dope and drive."


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