DRIVING UNDER ANOTHER INFLUENCE: POT
For more than two decades, the message has been as deafening as an ambulance siren: Don't drink and drive.
With prom season under way and graduation parties next, schools have shifted into high gear. Mock accidents. Breathalyzer screens. Mothers Against Drunk Driving assemblies.
But experts say not enough attention is being paid to another risky behavior: driving under the influence of drugs such as marijuana. Known as "drugging and driving," it is nearly as prevalent as drinking and driving, researchers say.
In March, 16-year-old Jessica Easter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., was killed as she tried to get out of an SUV driven by Stephen L. Meloni, 19, a Harriton High School graduate who had twice the legal amount of alcohol in his system. Meloni also tested positive for marijuana. In addition, police found nearly 80 grams of the drug in his vehicle.
In Bucks County, a 19-year-old died last year after crashing into a tree near Oxford Valley Mall. He was under the influence of marijuana, police said.
"Kids just don't see it as all that risky," said Stephen Wallace, national head of Students Against Destructive Decisions, a peer advocacy group based in Marlborough, Mass.
"We've done a great job of educating young people and parents about the dangers of drinking and driving," Wallace said. "We need to ramp up our efforts on drugging and driving."
Though SADD and law enforcement agencies believe, without a doubt, that driving while drugged contributes to accidents, it is a "phantom menace," Wallace said.
Data collection has begun only recently and it is often incomplete.
In 2004, at least 9 percent of roughly 17,100 drivers tested for drugs after being involved in a fatal crash came up positive for marijuana, according to statistics provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration.
But many drug test results go unreported, and testing methodology is not uniform. Researchers also say people may register positive for marijuana use up to two weeks after using the drug.
Furthermore, drivers who are found to be intoxicated are rarely given a second test for the presence of drugs. As a result, those who are multiply impaired can go undetected.
Unlike most drugs, evidence of marijuana use lingers in the body. It takes eight days to eliminate 90 percent of it, according to a study cited by Wilkie Wilson, professor of pharmacology at Duke University and co-author of Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy.
Researchers say that marijuana, which has become more potent over the years, affects judgment, concentration, perception, coordination and reaction time - all skills needed for safe driving. The greatest risk is in the first 24 hours.
"If you're smoking marijuana, you have no business driving," Wilson said.
In 2003, members of NAIVE ( Narcotic, Alcohol, Inhalant & Violence Education ) began visiting schools, said founder Dan Baranoski, a Middletown Police Department detective. During presentations, he said, the group drums the message about drugging and driving. "When the topic of pot comes up," he said, "half of ( the students ) cheer. . . . They think it's not that bad."
Conventional wisdom among teens "is that kids can drive after smoking marijuana, that they have a little more control" than they do after drinking, said Patrick O'Malley, a research professor at the University of Michigan, who is involved in the "Monitoring the Future" survey of U.S. high school students.
In 2004, O'Malley said that 13 percent of seniors reported driving after drinking. The same percentage acknowledged driving after smoking marijuana.
In a study of injured drivers at a Baltimore trauma unit, conducted in 2003, marijuana was the most popular companion drug to alcohol, especially among those under 35, said psychologist J. Michael Walsh, president of the Walsh Group, a Bethesda, Md., consultancy involved in the research.
That finding is worrisome, Walsh said, because marijuana combined with a beer or two can produce a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit in many states. It's more than seven times Pennsylvania's limit for drivers under 21.
The study concluded that driver-safety initiatives that focus solely on alcohol overlook the role of drugs in a "significant proportion" of crashes.
That has started to change. A "Steer Clear of Pot" campaign, sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control, was launched in December 2004.
States have also been encouraged to test drivers in accidents for drug use. That is still rarely done, largely because there is no Breathalyzer equivalent for roadside drug testing.
Others are lobbying to make it a crime to have any level of an illegal drug in one's system while driving. Only 13 states, including Pennsylvania, have such a law.
Groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( NORML ), which lobbies for legalization of the drug, are concerned that campaigns focused on drugged driving may be linked to efforts to further criminalize pot. NORRL urges members not to drive impaired, said Allen St. Pierre, the group's executive director.
In many schools, warnings about drugging and driving are infrequent.
"In my 10 years of school," said junior Andrew Karasik, president of the SADD chapter at Lower Merion High School, "I've heard about the riskiness of smoking marijuana and getting behind the wheel once or twice compared to drinking and driving, which you hear every year."
Bob Lenahan, a driver-ed teacher at Methacton High School, has updated his message. He uses goggles and driving simulators to show the effect of drugs. "They're real quiet afterwards," he said of his students.
Cruisin' Not Boozin', a program of Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, is making the rounds of local schools, having patients who suffered serious injuries in accidents involving alcohol and drugs speak to students.
Yet many area school administrators say that in spring, full schedules leave little time for discussions about the danger of driving while drugged.
"Alcohol, without question, is the most abused drug in America. I don't think it's wrong to emphasize that message," said Joe Bollendorf, an assistant principal at Washington Township High School in Gloucester County. He said drugs get addressed other times of the year.
A wrecked car will be parked in front of the school to send the message "Don't Drink and Drive." On prom day, Friday, Washington Township's seniors will hear from a prosecutor, a trauma nurse and a mother with Mothers Against Drunk Driving who lost her daughter to a drunk driver.
"Many kids become visibly unhinged," Bollendorf said. "They're going to think twice."
Lower Merion tackles impaired driving in a variety of ways. Last month, prom-goers underwent Breathalyzer tests.
Marijuana, methamphetamines, alcohol - there's so much students need to be educated about, said Bruce Barner, the district's supervisor of guidance. "We need to be able to say these are all dangerous," Barner said.