Drugged and Driving: Overdoses behind the wheel

Published: Nov. 22, 2017 at 2:06 PM EST
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As Vermont grapples with the opiate crisis, drugged driving is a growing concern. By the end of October, 250 people had been charged this year with driving under the influence of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol. And 21 drivers involved in fatal crashes have had drugs or both drugs and alcohol in their system, according to Vermont State Police. Not all of those drugs are opiates but a growing number of them are.

Two recent overdose cases in South Burlington narrowly averted tragedy on busy roads. So I wanted to know, what's being done to keep drivers safe?

Oct. 5, South Burlington police responded to a scene next to the busy shopping plaza at Farrell Street and Shelburne Road during the dinner hour.

"We saw a man on the ground and the police trying to revive him," witness Emma Gentry told WCAX News.

Police say the driver had a tourniquet on his arm and there was a needle on the floor of the Jeep he was driving, which had stopped just before crossing into Route 7 traffic.

Then, mid-afternoon Nov. 14, a driver went off the road in the South Henry Court neighborhood.

"They found the operator was basically deceased. They had overdosed. They were blueish-purple, not breathing," South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple said.

Officers used Narcan to revive the driver. Police say in both cases the men had overdosed while driving.

"We've had two within about a 30-day period," Whipple said. "Extremely concerning."

The chief calls these cases anomalies, extreme examples where a person's addiction is so severe that they risk shooting up while driving.

"You have someone who is in control of a deadly weapon. A vehicle is a deadly weapon," Whipple said.

He tells us when officers arrive on a scene, the car is their first priority. They disable it to make sure it can't start rolling again. Then they focus on any injuries. He says they've been lucky that in both of these cases, only the drivers needed an ambulance.

"What if they had drifted off the road into a populated area? Into a school playground? We're absolutely fortunate that we haven't seen something worse," Whipple said.

The scariest part of these incidents is that they can happen anywhere, on roads that you or I drive each day. So when one happened right near our station, I wanted to know: What happens to drivers afterward to make sure that they don't do it again?

"We've charged 62 this year," Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said.

George says not all suspected drugged drivers are people who have passed out behind the wheel. But they've already charged more than five dozen people who police say were high on the roads.

"That certainly doesn't mean there aren't more people out there," George said. "Those are just the ones who are arrested and charged."

But as she knows, criminal charges are not enough for some drivers.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Do you see a lot of repeat names?

Sarah George: Yeah, we do, unfortunately.

If it's a driver's first offense, they usually get counseling, a safe driving course and a fine. Second and third offenses can start racking up jail time. George says she's sensitive to addicts' struggles but they cross the line when they get behind the wheel and endanger others.

"You're putting everybody else on the road at risk," George said.

That's how Chief Whipple sees it, too. And he has a message.

"I wish you wouldn't use. I wish you would seek treatment," he said. "If you're in a situation where you have to use, as much as I can I understand that, do it as safely as possible. Don't do it in the car."

Whipple has a message for you and me, too. If we see someone shooting up at a stoplight or driving erratically, he wants us to call the police.