I-Team: Police catching thousands of impaired drivers — some on meth, tranquilizers

I-Team Special Reports

While alcohol remains problem, less than half of fatal crashes involve substance, data shows

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Police across the Las Vegas valley are pulling over drivers who aren’t just drunk, but also high. Oftentimes, those substances are perfectly legal.

“At the end of the day, people are driving impaired, and they’re right next to you,” Andrew Bennett, spokesman for the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety, said.

On average, a drunk driver will drive 80 times before his or her first arrest, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and those are the drivers who get caught.

“Anything that changes your ability to drive is going to be an impairment substance,” Bennett said, adding more and more often, police are finding those impairment substances are not what you think.

Bennett described a so-called deadly cocktail. Police are finding a mix of alcohol and legal and illegal drugs in drivers’ systems.

The I-Team looked at a year’s worth of DUI data from Metro Police. Out of nearly 2,300 arrests for drugged driving, 70% of cases involved marijuana, 28% of cases involve prescription drugs and 25% of cases involve methamphetamine. Most drugged drivers did not just have one drug in their systems, so the percentages do not add up to 100.

While recreational marijuana is legal in Nevada, driving under its influence is not.

In one case last year, investigators said an intoxicated driver had meth and six different prescription drugs in their blood that affected their driving.

Four cases since 2018 have involved drivers with six different drugs in their system. THC was detected in each of those drivers, and powerful opioids were found in three of the four cases: fentanyl, morphine and buprenorphine.

In Henderson, police tell the I-Team out of 645 DUI arrested in 2020, about a quarter involved only alcohol. Police said they are now finding people driving around the valley intoxicated with tranquilizers in their system.

“If not for the broad and extensive testing that allows us to detect these new and novel drugs, a lot of these cases would go unreported, and the charges against the suspects could be plead down,” Henderson Police officials said in a statement to the I-Team. “Our goal has always been to make Henderson and the surrounding communities that we serve a safe place for all residents. Hopefully, the impaired driving statistics that we are able to provide will show yourself and the community that commitment that we try to uphold every day.”

Henderson PD also provided a breakdown of the most common substances found in intoxicated drivers’ systems. They include cannabis, meth, cocaine and anti-anxiety medications, which can affect one’s driving,

Police in Henderson also tell the I-Team they have made arrests with drivers who have Kratom and other opioids that can make a person severely drowsy.

“Impaired driving is a public health crisis,” Bennett said.

That crisis is leading to deaths on our roads. Data about fatal crashes on state roads from NHP from the first half of 2020 showed more than half of those crashes – about two-thirds — did not involve any alcohol at all.

In December 2020, a trucker driver, who police said had nine times the prosecutable amount of meth in his system, crashed into a group of cyclists on U.S. 95 near Searchlight, killing five.

The driver, who told investigators he had ingested meth the night before his trip from Las Vegas to Arizona, took a plea deal and will be sentenced next month.

With so many cars on the road and the number of drugged drivers increasing, police hope other drivers will alert them if they think something is wrong. If you see someone you think is driving erratically, call 911.

“We just can’t hope that there’s a law enforcement officer at the right place and the right time to stop that car,” Bennett said. “We need to deal with it as a problem a little bit larger than just traffic.”

Police within the Department of Public Safety are undergoing better training to identify signs of a person who should not be behind the wheel, not only because of alcohol, but drugs, Bennett said.

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