Law enforcement

High Behind the Wheel: Rising Drug-Related Crashes Heighten Search for Accurate Roadside Drug Tests

What to Know

  • The number of people dying in drug-related crashes is skyrocketing according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration.
  • Massachusetts is now testing two roadside drug tests that could help them get high drivers off the road.
  • “This is a new and emerging technology and we’re just not there yet,” said Matthew Allen of the ACLU.

The number of people dying in drug-related crashes is skyrocketing according to recent data from the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration.

Police worry -- if they can’t get some help -- it’s only going to get worse. There is no breathalyzer for drugs like there is for alcohol and it is a huge challenge for law enforcement when it comes to identifying people driving under the influence of drugs. But Massachusetts is now testing two roadside drug tests that could help them get high drivers off the road. Critics say there’s too much room for error.

In 2017, the NBC10 Boston Investigators got exclusive access to the Massachusetts State Police. At roadblocks around the state, they asked nearly 200 volunteers to swab their mouths for saliva in order to test the roadside drug detection devices. Troopers fed one saliva sample into portable devices and sent the other to an independent lab, with more sensitive equipment, for comparison and confirmation.

The federally-funded study was done on behalf of the Massachusetts District Attorney Association and state police. The results haven’t been made public, but the NBC10 Boston Investigators obtained a copy of the report and showed the data to Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael. He sits on the state’s special commission on drugged driving. After looking at the results, he said, “Those are very high numbers. I’ll take that all day.”

The tests screen for seven classes of drugs from methamphetamines to opiates to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. They used two different brands, the DDS2 from Alere and Abbott Labs and the DDT5000 from Draeger.

According to the report, both brands tested had an overall accuracy of 92 percent -- compared to the lab results. But there were some problems as well. Both showed drivers had drugs in their system when the independent lab said they didn’t about one to five percent of the time. The DDT5000 showed an overall false positive rate of .7 percent while the DDS2 had a 4.7 percent rate. The machines missed drugs all together from about 3 to 7 percent of the time with the DDS2 having the lower false negative rate of 2.8 percent versus the 6.7 percent rate of the DDT5000.

Draeger, which makes the DDT5000 did not respond to our requests for comment, but a spokesman for Abbott, which makes the DDS2 sent us a statement.

“Abbott’s DDS2 analyzer has been favorably evaluated by police departments in several states and worldwide. In a study presented at the 2014 Society of Forensic Toxicologists meeting, the DDS2 demonstrated 98 percent accuracy compared with confirmatory lab tests," the statement says. "To safeguard against any false positive or false negative, we always recommend that a second oral fluid sample be collected and sent to a laboratory for confirmation testing.”

Chief Carmichael says these devices aren’t silver bullet solutions but will help.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s something that’s one more tool the officer has,” said Carmichael.

For opiates, the study showed both devices correctly identified the drugs about three-quarters of the time. The DDS2 had a sensitivity rate of 75 percent while the DDT5000’s sensitivity rate was 78.6 percent. For THC, the chemical in marijuana that researchers say can indicate more recent use, one machine, the DDS2, got it right every time while the other failed to detect it nearly a third of the time. The DDT5000 sensitivity rate was 66.7 percent.

“This is a new and emerging technology and we’re just not there yet,” said Matthew Allen of the ACLU.

Allen is also on the drugged-driving commission. He is against letting police collect oral fluids until more studies have been done.

“We want to make sure that if we’re going to be restricting people’s civil liberties or penalizing drivers that that approach is based on sound science and evidence,” said Allen.

According to a report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 44 percent of drivers killed in crashes in 2016 had drugs in their system -- that’s up more than 50 percent from a decade ago.

“That’s just alarming when you think of the sheer numbers out there,” exclaimed Carmichael.

Finding a one-size-fits-all solution is daunting. Drugs affect people differently, they can stay in the system for weeks or months and measuring impairment is a huge challenge. These roadside tests can’t tell officers if the driver is too high to drive -- just that there are drugs in their system.

“It doesn’t have to gauge impairment,” Carmichael said. “The operator has already shown the officer on the street the impairment. The car’s weaving as it’s moving down Route 1, or it might be that the person has glassy, bloodshot eyes, slow and deliberate speech, there might be an odor coming from that car, there might be things in plain view.”

Carmichael says we should let the police collect the evidence and the rest can be sorted in court. Allen disagrees.

“One point of view I heard from law enforcement agents, well, this test might not be perfect, but it’s the best we have. I think we can do better,” said Allen.

“I don’t think we’re going to come up with a device that’s going to be 100 percent accurate every time. But it’s a tool,” said Carmichael.

The drugged driving commission recently recommended 10-2 that police officers be allowed to take oral fluids to test for drugs. They did not vote on the roadside tests themselves. Any change to state regulation would have to be approved by lawmakers.

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