High Behind the Wheel: The Drugged Driving Epidemic

Police officers, legislators and victims’ families push for stronger laws as experts warn drugged driving could soon eclipse drunk driving

The sound of chopping and quiet murmuring wafts from the kitchen of Iris McGrath. It's a tradition she and her youngest daughter Chelsea never wanted — cooking Brittany's favorite foods on the eve of what would have been her 31st birthday party.

"I opened the door and I could see through the window a uniformed officer, and I knew something terrible had happened," said Iris McGrath.

It was Aug. 28, 2014. Three o'clock in the afternoon. A driver crossed into the center lane of Route 5 in Easthampton. His SUV slammed into Brittany and Ed McGrath — out for their annual father-daughter motorcycle ride. Ed was 62. Brittany had just turned 29.

Sitting in the living room of her mother's Holyoke home, Chelsea McGrath wondered, "Was she scared? Did she know? Did she see the car coming?"

The family's grief soon compounded by horrifying news. The driver — James Ainsworth — and his girlfriend had shot up with heroin and were taking turns navigating the SUV. When one would start to nod off, the other would take the wheel.

Witnesses told police that as Ed and Brittany lay in the road, Ainsworth lit a cigarette and said, "the curb woke me up."

Chelsea shook her head.

"To know that you're both nodding off behind the wheel and nowhere in your diseased brain do you think, 'God, we should probably pull over,'" she said.

Drugged driving is a growing problem. The data is outdated — much of it gathered before the opioid epidemic had a vise grip on New England, but according to federal analysis, about 4,000 drivers who die in crashes each year across the country have drugs in their systems. In Massachusetts, from 2010 to 2015, Department of Transportation data shows drugged driving citations have jumped nearly 225 percent.

"A lot of times, police officers on the streets feel like they're spinning their tires," said Walpole Chief of Police John Carmichael.

Carmichael says law enforcement doesn't have the tools it needs to combat the issue.

In Massachusetts, if driver is suspected of being under the influence of alcohol and they refuse a breath test, they automatically lose their license for at least six months. But if they refuse a drug evaluation, there is no penalty. It is one of only four states to allow that to happen.

Carmichael said potentially drugged drivers know the system is in their favor.

"Word spreads," he said. "People know."

It's not an easy issue to tackle. With alcohol, there is consensus that anyone with a blood alcohol content of .08 is impaired, but the effects of marijuana and other drugs in a person's system are harder to measure. And there is no widely-accepted tool like a Breathalyzer for drugs.

We asked State Sen. Jason Lewis if Massachusetts is prepared for what's coming down the road, so to speak.

"Well, probably not," he said.

Lewis is chair of the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana. He says even with legalization of recreational marijuana, there has been little focus on drugged driving.

"It deserves more attention here in Massachusetts from the legislature and, frankly, from Gov. [Charlie] Baker, than it's getting right now," he said.

Asked if he thinks the laws need to change he said, "There's no question that they do. The question is exactly how."

Last year, Gov. Baker signed sweeping opiod legislation into law. The focus was primarily on addiction and recovery. Drugged driving bills on Beacon Hill have gained little traction.

"What you're doing is not working. Your rhetoric is just rhetoric," Iris McGrath said. "We need to see results."

McGrath says she's living a life of injustice. But she hopes justice — for the lives of her ex-husband and daughter — will come in the form of change.

"I'm on my knees on the floor of the universe," she said. "Just ... mercy."

James Ainsworth pleaded guilty to two counts each of vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15-20 years at MCI-Shirley. His girlfriend's case was continued without a finding for a year. According to the state, she did not violate the law in that year and recently finished her term of probation.

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