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Driving on Drugs: How America's Prescription Drug Epidemic is Causing Motor Vehicle Accidents

Driving Under the Influence, or DUI, typically invokes the idea of a drunk driver. But increasingly, the "influence" drivers are under is not alcohol, but drugs--prescription drugs. Due to the efforts of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), better police enforcement of stricter laws, and greater awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving, drunk driving is on the decline. But the prevalence of drug-impaired driving, especially in traffic fatalities, is on the rise. Even more surprising is that the drugs likely to be found in a driver's system who has been charged with DWI or DUI are not illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin; they are prescription drugs.

Much has been made lately of America's obsession with prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety medications. Both of these classes of drugs, even if obtained with valid prescriptions and taken according to doctors' orders, can cause side effects that impair a person's driving. Many of the drugs in these classes are labeled with warnings about driving or operating heavy machinery. Even absent a warning label, however, patients must assume the knowledge of the medications they take which can interfere with the reflexes and motor skills necessary for driving. Therefore, it is not a defense to a DUI or DWI charge based on drugs to offer proof of a valid prescription and adherence to correct doses. (Note that in the DUI and DWI context, even over the counter medications such as antihistamines and sleep aides are considered drugs since they can impair driving.)

However, if a driver is taking medicine obtained legally and according to doctor's orders, then actual impairment must be proven in order to convict the driver of DUI or DWI. Either through video evidence or officer testimony, symptoms of impairment such as lane weaving, reckless maneuvers, failure to observe street signs, slow reactions to road hazards or events, following cars too closely, and/or overall lack of alertness would be the type of evidence needed support a conviction for DUI or DWI. This evidence must be presented if the drug in question is legal, legally obtained, and correctly taken.

On July 1, 2001, Georgia implemented its "per se" drugged driving law, making it illegal to operate a motor vehicle with any detectable amount of marijuana or controlled substances (as specified in the state's code) in one's system. Testing to determine if any of these drugs is present in a driver's system is done by urinalysis, or sometimes through a blood test. Therefore, if a driver is shown to have a prohibited drug in his or her system, he or she is guilty, regardless of the amount of the drug. Georgia also has a zero tolerance law for drivers under 21 who have alcohol in their system; no matter what the blood alcohol level, they will be found guilty of DUI because they are under the legal drinking age.

If you have been charged with DUI or DWI, or if you would like more information about Georgia law related to these offenses, please contact our offices.

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Thomas Law Firm
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