High Behind the Wheel: Most Officers Lack Advanced Training to Spot Drugged Drivers

Amy Westgate said she had no time to react.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, 2014. Westgate and her boyfriend were driving on South Main Street in Carver, Massachusetts, when a Toyota Scion driven by 24-year-old Chris Reagan crossed into her lane, hitting her car head on. She was five month’s pregnant.

Had Westgate's pregnancy been two weeks further along — viable outside the womb — prosecutors say Reagan would have been charged with motor vehicle homicide.

"You’re making the decision that is not about your life anymore, it’s about everyone else," Westgate told NBC10 Boston's Investigators "It’s the most selfish thing in the world."

Police found a mix of cocaine and fentanyl, along with a spoon and syringe, in Reagan's car. He pleaded guilty to operating under the influence of drugs and is among the growing number of drivers police have deemed an "immediate threat."

According to Massachusetts data license revocations for OUI, drugs are up 65 percent in the last three years.

Massachusetts State Police Trooper Patrick Mahady said drivers often don’t know how much or little of a drug can make them impaired.

"For them to go to work, for them to drop their kids off at school, for them to do basically anything they need to have a small hit," he said.

That small hit can have devastating consequences, and police worry that with the roll-out of recreational marijuana, impaired driving could become an even greater problem.

"We are constantly going to these crashes," Mahady said. "We are constantly pulling people over that are doing this and it’s just not safe."

Proving an OUI drug case in court can be hard. There is no breathalyzer for drugs. And though the state is trying out a roadside drug test, it’s controversial and could take years to implement.

For now, their best evidence to get a conviction is the field sobriety test. But skills among officers vary.

"If people get pulled over and the cop isn’t trained in identifying the type of drugs that they’re using or he’s not trained in identifying the types of impairment, the message will get out, ‘It’s OK. He let me go,'" Mahady said. "The worst-case scenario is that they let them back on the road. They let them back on the road and they drive away."

All officers are trained in the standard field sobriety test when they go through the police academy, but some say that given the epidemic of drugged driving, more advanced training is necessary.

The highest level is a Drug Recognition Expert, or DRE. A less-intense but widely accepted national program is ARIDE. Some states require every new officer to get ARIDE training, but Massachusetts doesn’t. Only about 10 percent of the state’s nearly 20,000 officers have been been certified.

We asked Jeff Larason, director of highway safety for Massachusetts, how aggressive the state has been in making sure officers are getting the training they need.

"Well, I think we’ve been pretty aggressive," he said. "We can always do better to make sure that everybody is trained. If we had an ideal circumstance, every officer would be trained, able to do solid detection of drug impaired drivers.”

Some police chiefs worry that we’re behind the curve in other ways too. States like California, Colorado and Vermont host "green labs" where volunteers smoke marijuana and officers learn how to spot impairment.

Massachusetts focuses only on alcohol. Other states have launched drug-only media campaigns, legalized roadside tests and hired court liaisons specifically for drugged driving.

"To make sure that the courts are prepared to understand all of these new technologies and new issues with regard to cannabis impairment, they perhaps may not have dealt with at the same level that we expect them to," Larason said. "Police enforcement is certainly a big piece of what the challenge is.

"But getting the courts to understand what the dangers are on the roads, that’s also something that is pretty important, because a police officer can do everything that is within their purview and do the job 100 percent correctly but sometimes when it gets to the next level, that’s where the challenge is."

We asked if Massachusetts has that kind of liaison, and Larason said it doesn't, but the state is moving forward with it.

"It’s going to happen," he said. When pressed for a timeline, he said, "By summer... but that’s not set in stone. It’s a tentative process. We’re working on it."

Amy Westgate hopes the state makes solid advances. Because she was in a coma, she never got to hold her son, but nurses wrapped his body in a blanket and took pictures for when she woke up. It’s what she clings to - that and the hope that the life he never got to live would not be in vain.

"As long as one person decides that  —  'No, I shouldn’t get behind the wheel right now'  —  his life mattered," she said.

State police have just finished collecting all of the samples they need in their roadside drug test pilot. Now they need to analyze what they found and see how accurate the test was.

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