When Carol McNamee was a senior studying chemistry at Stanford University in 1960, she never imagined that her life would be defined by her efforts to try to prevent drunken drivers from killing themselves and others on Hawaii’s roadways.
She was set to graduate and had a job lined up as a chemist. But instead she married a fellow Stanford student and came to Hawaii. Years later at a conference in Hilo, she heard Dr. Michael Irwin describe his unending grief after a drunk driver plowed into his car, leaving Irwin’s wife dead in his arms and his 2-year-old son grievously injured. That inspired her in 1984 to become a founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii.
“It has been a major commitment for me for the last 35 years,” says McNamee, the wife of fertility doctor Philip McNamee. “It has been like a career.”
MADD’s commitment apparently helped, because alcohol-related deaths in Hawaii have gone down by more than 50 percent, according to the state Department of Transportation. But a more complex problem threatens road safety: drivers impaired by drugs.
For the first time this year, MADD Hawaii will be making a full-force effort to join the Honolulu Police Department and the DOT in a directed crusade to reduce fatalities from drugged driving.
“As we are seeing alcohol-caused fatal crashes decrease, we are seeing an increase in deaths caused by drug-impaired drivers, especially young drivers,” says McNamee. “To me, this is very sad and personally frustrating after working for 35 years to reduce drunken driving deaths to see this new problem arise. It didn’t happen overnight but now it is serious. We are facing a whole new battle.”
In 2016, the last year statistics were collected and confirmed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 52 out of 120 — or 43 percent — of drivers and passengers who died in Hawaii traffic accidents had illegal drugs in their systems (substances that appear on the list of controlled substances).
Drivers ages 16 to 45 are the most represented in Hawaii’s drugged driving deaths. And according to the state Department of Health’s trauma registry, marijuana was the most prevalent substance for which the fatally injured drivers in this age group tested positive.
MADD’s national office has cautioned the Hawaii chapter to not forget its crusade against alcohol, which still is a primary culprit in highway deaths. Still, “We want to do as much as we can to prevent drugged driving deaths,” says McNamee.
As more states legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, the drugged driving problem is getting more attention.
In October, MADD Hawaii sponsored a conference, “Drugs and Driving: A Call to Action,” that brought in experts from the mainland.
“It is a huge issue we should all be very concerned about,” said MADD Hawaii board member Kurt Kendro, a retired HPD major. “People traditionally think of alcohol as impairing drivers, not drugs. But drug-impaired driving is on the rise.”
MADD’s focus in its new effort will be on what it does best: educating the public about the dangers of impaired driving, especially working to get teachers and other leaders respected by young people to caution them about the dangers of drug impairment as well as lobbying the Legislature to change laws to make the arrest and prosecution of drugged drivers easier.
McNamee says some people seem oblivious to the impact of drugs on their driving, with some even claiming that marijuana use increases their safety by causing them to drive slower.
DOT highway safety specialist Karen Kahikina says MADD is a valuable partner.
“MADD can reach groups with its educational efforts that the DOT has trouble reaching because of our limited resources and because as a government agency we are seen as a distant entity,” Kahikina said, adding that MADD has been out in the community for decades gaining credibility and respect.
McNamee says preventing traffic fatalities caused by drug impairment is going to be more difficult for MADD than trying to keep drunken drivers off the road.
For one thing, drunken driving is much easier to prove. When a driver has a blood-alcohol content of .08 or above, the driver has exceeded the legal limit to drive. Simple.
Drugged drivers can be impaired by different amounts of different drugs. Those may include over-the-counter medications such as cough suppressants, prescription medicines, plant root and stem drinks such as kava and household substances mixed together to make hallucinogens.
When a driver is suspected of being drug-impaired, the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the problem substance is a scheduled drug from a list of chemicals found in the Hawaii Revised Statutes. Drugs not on the list don’t count.
McNamee says MADD will join the state this year as it continues to push for a broader definition of what constitutes a drug capable of causing impaired driving to include non-controlled substances.
“Things change so quickly,” she says. “Our current definition of what constitutes a drug is way too narrow.”
A bill to make the definition of drugs broader died in conference committee last year at the Legislature.
“From a public safety point of view, if a driver is impaired by a substance, whether it be a chemical on a list or not, they shouldn’t be driving,” says acting Maj. Ben Moszkowicz of the Honolulu Police Department’s traffic division. “Because if they’re impaired, they’re endangering everyone else on the road.”
Another problem, according to state statistics gathered by the DOT, is an increase in drivers refusing to be tested. To address this, there is expected to be a push for legislation this year to allow judges to approve search warrants electronically or by telephone so law enforcement officers can quickly mandate testing for reluctant suspects.
McNamee says MADD’s new campaign to curb drugged driving in some ways will be like starting over. After all, it’s taken many years of work to reduce drunken driving.
“This continues to be a passion for me,” says McNamee. “I don’t have a lot of energy left. I just want to get this effort launched.”
Read a DOT report on drugged driving below:
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