Impaired driving campaign blends education, enforcement

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BOSTON – State public safety officials are urging motorists not to get behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs this holiday season in a campaign that also aims to generate new momentum for the Baker administration’s impaired driving legislation.

Through Jan. 1, 2020, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security will purchase televised advertisements, gas station TV spots and posters for bars and restaurants warning about the dangers of impaired driving, focusing on marijuana as legal recreational sales of the substance continue to increase.

The $220,600 “Wisdom” campaign specifically targets men between the ages of 21 and 39, who are the most likely to cause crashes while driving impaired, according to organizers of the new campaign.

“Our education campaign dispels the myth that you are a better driver if you’re under the influence of cannabis,” Public Safety Secretary Thomas Turco said. “Impairment by any substance makes you a danger behind the wheel. We trust that the majority of people using cannabis and alcohol will do so responsibly, but strong impaired driving laws are needed for those who continue to put the lives of others at risk.”

The state has also awarded $270,000 to 125 local police departments to pay for additional patrols targeting drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs during the holiday season.

Last December, 839 people died across the U.S. due to crashes involving an impaired driver, acccording to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with 285 drunk driving-related fatalities between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Between 2013 and 2017, marijuana was the second-most common substance behind alcohol found in drivers involved in fatal crashes in Massachusetts, officials said.

The office warned that Massachusetts legalizing recreational marijuana use could increase impaired driving crashes, pointing to an uptick in traffic deaths involving marijuana in Colorado reported by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area since that state began adult use recreational sales in 2014.

The administration also renewed calls for the Legislature to pass Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill (H 71) aiming to give law enforcement new tools to crack down on drug-impaired drivers.

Baker’s legislation, based on recommendations from the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving, would extend restrictions similar to those already in place for alcohol impairment to motorists affected by or in possession of marijuana.

Drivers suspected of marijuana impairment who refuse a chemical test would lose their license for at least six months, and would also be forbidden from having loose or unsealed packages of the substance in their vehicles.

Opponents have argued that, unlike alcohol, tests for marijuana impairment are unreliable.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill in November, and the legislation has remained before that panel all year.

Baker signed an unrelated bill into law last month that takes significant steps to prevent distracted driving, banning all cellphone use behind the wheel unless the device is in hands-free mode. The new restrictions take effect Feb. 23, but will not result in fines — which can range between $100 and $500 — until March 31.