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Drugged Driving Overtakes Alcohol in Tennessee Road Deaths

She buckles a stuffed teddy bear into a baby car seat and heads down the same two-lane country road where her son was killed in 2014.

The teddy bear’s skin is denim — a favorite pair of Jacob Akers’ jeans. Its shirt is purple, the color of Lipscomb University, where Akers had graduated pre-med just two months before the crash. Carol Akers can’t face life without the bear’s soft presence.

Jacob Akers, 22, was killed in a head-on collision on Highway 49 in Dickson County, days after proposing to his high school sweetheart. Prosecutors allege that the other driver was under the influence of hydrocodone, a prescription opioid painkiller, and amphetamines.

“It’s something that could have been prevented,” said Carol Akers, his mother. “This is what happens. You get 51-year-old ladies carrying a bear around.”

Hundreds of families across Tennessee are carrying similar grief from fatal crashes, and an increasing number of them are caused by drivers impaired by drugs. Drugged driving has overtaken drunken and distracted driving as a factor in Tennessee traffic fatalities. The number of deaths from crashes with drug-impaired drivers shot up by 89 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to an analysis of Tennessee Highway Patrol data.

Experts attribute the increase to a rising prevalence of drug abuse, especially of prescription medication, and law enforcement officers who can more readily detect drug-impaired drivers. In 2015, 174 people died in crashes in which a driver either tested positive for drugs or an officer determined drugs contributed to the crash. For alcohol, the tally reached 136 deaths, while distracted driving was associated with 51 killed.

This year, traffic fatalities in general are on the rise in Tennessee, and are on track to break a three-year streak of declining deaths.

It’s too early to describe the cause of the increase, because toxicology tests take months. The wave of drug tests flooding state forensic laboratories is contributing to long delays in pinpointing which drivers were impaired.

The cases are challenging prosecutors who have inexact legal standards. Unlike drunken driving’s national level of .08 blood alcohol concentration, none exist for drugs.

“It’s one of the first things I think about when I wake up in the morning and one of the last things I think of when I go to bed at night,” said Jack Arnold, an assistant district attorney for the 23rd Judicial District, which includes Cheatham, Dickson, Houston, Humphreys and Stewart counties.

In his mostly rural district, 11 people were killed in drugged-driving cases, while two were killed in alcohol-related crashes, between January 2014 and this spring.

Penalties vary

Arnold is prosecuting 36-year-old Johnny Dye, the other driver in Akers’ case. Dye has been charged with vehicular homicide by impairment and vehicular homicide by recklessness.

The penalties for impaired driving outstrip those for reckless driving: a range of eight to 30 years for impaired drivers or three to 15 years for recklessness.

Arnold gave an example of two recent vehicular homicide cases. In one, a driver with a felony record was convicted for drug-impaired driving and received a 20-year sentence. In the other, the prosecution couldn’t prove he was drugged, and the driver received a two-year sentence.

Dye’s attorney, Olin Baker, said the blood test results don’t show Dye was actually intoxicated, just that his blood tested positive for traces of the substances. Baker said state law is poorly written and doesn’t specify what level rises to impairment.

“If they find anything in your system they’ll put you on trial and say that you are driving under the influence,” Baker said.

The lack of uniform standards is a national concern, said Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“As prescription opioid abuse is becoming rampant, and marijuana is being legalized in more and more places,” Rosekind told the American Public Health Association in arecent interview, “what does that mean for drivers and also for pedestrians and law enforcement?”

Groups such as MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and district attorney groups are lobbying for legal limits.

“I expect some legislators to take a shot at advancing a drugged-driving law,” Arnold said about Tennessee. “It will take some time, but we’re hopeful.”

For the recent rise of drug-related fatal crashes in Tennessee, drivers were under the influence of substances ranging from marijuana to methamphetamine. Increases were seen across the board. Arnold said he prosecutes many drivers high on benzodiazepines such as Xanax and opiates such as hydrocodone.

“Narcotic pain medication can make a patient really sleepy,” said Benjamin Heavrin, the medical director of the emergency department at TriStar Skyline Medical Center. “In some ways it turns a brain down … some people can’t react to a loud scream in their face.”

Heavrin has seen more victims from wrecks with drug-impaired drivers: “Patients taking benzodiazepines and opiates should not be driving, period.”

State efforts

In Tennessee, more officers are being trained to identify drug-impaired drivers. Since 2012, the number of annual training classes for the Drug Recognition Expert Program has doubled, said Richard Holt, law enforcement administrator and state DRE coordinator for the Tennessee Highway Safety Office.

Officers who undergo the three-week training can spot signs such as pupil dilation that may indicate intoxication, when alcohol isn’t detected. Then, they can testify as an expert witness that the person was under the influence at the time of the crash. About 115 officers in Tennessee are certified.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of arrests in Tennessee for driving under the influence of drugs increased by 26 percent, while the number of alcohol arrests decreased slightly, according to an analysis of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data. That may understate the arrests because officers aren’t always able to detect drugs.

“A lot of the drugged-driving cases aren’t caught until an accident occurs,” Arnold said.

Even then, it can take months after a crash to identify drugs as a contributing factor. Because of the influx of cases, the TBI crime labs take about six months to complete submitted drug blood tests, Arnold said, while alcohol blood tests are often completed in two months.

“The state, as a whole, is being swamped,” Arnold said.

Carol Akers has endured multiple delays for her son’s homicide trial, while the accused driver waits free on bond. The trial is now set for Nov. 21. In the meantime, Akers attends MADD counseling sessions and works as a nurse. Each day, she commutes past the site of her son's crash, but her routine hasn’t restored a purpose in life.

“You just don’t feel like you belong in this world anymore,” she said.

Correction: This story previously stated that prosecutors allege Johnny Dye was over the “therapeutic” level of hydrocodone. Prosecutors only allege that Dye had the drug in his system; the exact amount cannot be determined, according to the assistant district attorney in the case.

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