County roadside surveys will measure drug and alcohol trends

Researchers will be in Whatcom County this weekend to measure driver drug and alcohol use patterns.

On Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, researchers from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) will be stationed at five locations throughout the county to gather data for the project.

“Impaired drivers kill more than 200 people each year in Washington state. This research will help us better understand the extent of the problem,” said Washington Traffic Safety Commission director Darrin Grondel.

The project is being funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and organized in collaboration with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Data collectors will work in Spokane, Yakima, King, Snohomish, Whatcom and Kitsap counties and at five separate locations within each of those counties. For drivers, participation in this research is voluntary and anonymous. Last June, they interviewed a total of 926 drivers.

“We want motorists to know that the survey is entirely voluntary and anonymous. Researchers will not block traffic,” Grondel said.

Motorists who volunteer for the survey will be asked questions about their drug and alcohol use patterns and they will be asked to provide breath, blood and saliva samples. If they complete the entire survey, which takes about 20 minutes, they will receive a stipend of $60. Motorists can drop out of the survey at any time along the way.

Researchers will approach cars when they are stopped at intersections (traffic lights or stop signs) and ask for volunteers. Motorists who are interested in participating are guided to a nearby parking lot where the survey takes place.

Preliminary results from the June 2014 survey found that most drivers (88 percent, or 768 of the 877 respondents who answered the question) believe that marijuana impairs a person’s ability to drive. However, of the people who said they used marijuana within the last year, 44 percent said they drove within two hours of using marijuana, or while they were impaired.

Drivers who said they used marijuana and drove within the last year were also asked if they thought marijuana degraded their driving ability, 87 percent said no, 25 percent felt that driving while high made them a better driver, and only 3 percent said marijuana degrades their driving ability.

Research shows that driving while high doubles a driver’s chance of being in a fatal collision.

“It’s extremely troubling to me that so many marijuana users think that driving high is not a problem. It’s a serious problem,” Grondel said.

From 2011 through 2014, close to 850 people died in Washington as a result of impaired driving. It’s the number one cause of fatal collisions.

Of the 888 respondents who answered the question, 69 percent said they have used marijuana sometime in their life.

The only encouraging news from the survey for traffic safety officials is that a large percentage of the respondents (89 percent) believe that if you drive high, you will get a DUI.

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