Suited for Danger: What It's Like to Be High Behind the Wheel

The latest data shows that nearly a quarter of fatal crashes in the U.S. had at least one driver who tested positive for drugs after the crash

Sixteen-year-old Connor Barry has had his driver’s permit for about a week. Climbing into an SUV with an instructor, the Rhode Island teen says, “Let’s do this.”

But on this day, the teen is going beyond parallel parking to Skills for Life. It's a program run by Ford, teaching young drivers the dangers of driving distracted - drunk or high.

“I don’t even know where I am,” he says. He sounds disoriented because he’s wearing drug goggles, trying to navigate a closed course at the Seekonk Speedway. “I’m seeing like double of everything. I don’t know what to trust right now."

Behind the Scenes: Suited for Danger

The suit mimics the effects of alcohol and three illegal drugs, says Skills for Life program manager Nathan Katerberg - “LSD, marijuana and heroin.” It includes a 15-pound ankle weight to simulate slower reaction time and affect balance, plus arm and neck braces to restrict movement, a vibrating glove for tremors, headphones with distracting noise and flashing-light goggles.

“Those will give you tunnel vision,” says Katerberg.

Rhode Island teen Christopher Abatecola experiences Ford's drugged driving suit.

Knowing the dangers of drugged driving may be more important than ever. The latest data shows that nearly a quarter of fatal crashes in the U.S. had at least one driver who tested positive for drugs after the crash.

In Massachusetts, citations for operating under the influence of drugs are up 142 percent from 2006 to 2016. And with the recent legalization of recreational marijuana here, New England law enforcement fears it could get worse.

“Somebody from Massachusetts, that has legalized marijuana, is going to Providence, Rhode Island to a nightclub and brings their marijuana to Rhode Island – now we’re going to be dealing with the after-effects of that," says Rhode Island State Police Cpl. John Gadrow. "The impaired driving from marijuana, heroin, cocaine - whatever it is - crosses state lines.”

With no widely accepted roadside drug test or a breathalyzer for drugs, a field sobriety test is often an officer's best weapon to get a high driver off the road.

Massachusetts has launched a new campaign to highlight the dangers of drugged driving and Massachusetts State Police say they hope to train more officers as Drug Recognition Experts.

To test the effects of the drugged driving suit, reporter Ally Donnelly of NBC Boston's Investigators walked the line. She saw two of everything, stumbled often and missed the line completely at times.

"You wouldn’t be operating correctly at all, and I’d be afraid you were going to crash," says Massachusetts State Police Trooper Bill Robertson.

When she got behind the wheel of an SUV on the test track, she didn’t fare much better. Her depth perception was off, she was slow to react and she hit several cones.

Asked how realistic the effects of the suit are, Skills for Life instructor Josh Nalbandian says,  "This is kind of simulating a little bit of everything, so you might not have all those symptoms, but you might have all those symptoms depending on what you took." 

And if someone is really driving while high, he says, their cognitive abilities would also be impaired.

“If you were on drugs, you’re not going to have those abilities. You’re going to be staring at that sign thinking 'I don’t know what that means,' and then you’re going to go through the sign.”

As for Barry, he says he knows kids who have driven high and claim that pot or prescription drugs don't affect them or might even make them better, more careful drivers.

But after his experience, he doesn't believe them.

“Scared straight,” he said.

Rhode Island teen Christopher Abatecola pledges not to drive high after experiencing Ford's drugged driving suit.

To learn where the Skills for Life courses are happening or for more on impaired driving, click here.

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