Driving under the influence is normally seen as an issue involving alcohol, but driving while on certain medications could also lead to a DUI charge.
“It's not as uncommon as you think it would be,” said Detective Jeremy Hembree of the Aiken Department of Public Safety. “We do make several DUI cases where the person operating the vehicle is under the influence of something besides alcohol.”
Some people charged with DUI are under the influence of illegal narcotics, prescription medication and even over-the-counter medication, according to Hembree. These include tranquilizers, pain pills, sleep aids, antidepressants, cough medicines, antihistamines and decongestants.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 72 percent of people age 55 and older, a group most likely to take medications for chronic conditions, had no idea that their driving performance could be affected by their medications. Additionally, the study found that nearly half of people aged 70 and older take up to five medications per day.
Hembree said anyone suspected of driving under the influence is asked to go through the battery of field sobriety tests to determine if they are capable of driving.
“Also, it's based on what we find in speaking with the operator of the vehicle and any stuff we may find in the vehicle,” he said.
Some drugs, whether they are prescribed or over-the-counter, and even if you follow the directions, can impair you from driving.
“If you're supposed to take two pain pills every six hours, and you do that as directed, but, in the meantime, you operate a motor vehicle, and it placed you where you may be under the influence, you could still be charged with driving under the influence,” Hembree said. “Most medications that will give you some type of effect that may impair your judgment to operate a motor vehicle give you a warning on the side of the bottle – 'Do not operate any machinery or a motor vehicle while taking this medication.'”
Anyone placed under arrest for DUI is offered a Breathalyzer test to determine the suspect's blood-alcohol content. Hembree said a suspect can refuse a Breathalyzer, but their driver's license will automatically be suspended.
“If we believe they're under the influence of something besides alcohol, we take them for a urine screening,” he said. “We take them to the hospital and have them provide a urine sample, and it's the same as a Breathalyzer. They can take the test or they can refuse it, and if they refuse it, their driver's license will be suspended.”
Hembree said people under the influence of drugs present many of the same signs and symptoms as people under the influence of alcohol.
“A lot of the drugs give the same side effects as far as what we do for those tests, but you just don't smell alcohol,” he said. “Then you have to be able to articulate, 'OK, he may have been drinking some alcohol or not had any alcohol, but here's why I think he may be under the influence of something else.'”
Some agencies have a drug recognition expert, an officer with specialized training in determining impairment due to drugs.
“That person can actually run a battery of tests on someone, and they can almost make a determination of exactly what kind of drug they are under the influence of,” Hembree said, adding that while Aiken Public Safety no longer has a drug recognition expert, other local agencies do. “If they're available and we need to run through that battery of tests with someone, we will contact the agencies and request their assistance.”
That battery of tests can take from 90 minutes to two hours, Hembree said.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.