Category Archives: Traffic Infractions

Some States Are Suppressing BAC Results

An alcohol breath test from 1937.

Excellent article in the New York Times by Stacy Cowley and  

The Times interviewed more than 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts. Together, they reveal the depth of a nationwide problem that has attracted only sporadic attention.

Judges in Massachusetts and New Jersey have thrown out more than 30,000 breath tests in the past 12 months alone. According to the authors, the invalidated tests in Massachusetts were already used to convict drivers, state records show. This month, the state will begin informing those defendants that they can seek a new trial, and lawyers are bracing for a flood of requests. So are lawyers in New Jersey, where more than 13,000 people were found guilty based on breath tests from machines that hadn’t been properly set up. This was largely because of human errors and lax governmental oversight.

A county judge in Pennsylvania called it “extremely questionable” whether any of his state’s breath tests could withstand serious scrutiny. In response, local prosecutors stopped using them. In Florida, a panel of judges described their state’s instrument as a “magic black box” with “significant and continued anomalies.”

Even some industry veterans say the machines should not be de facto arbiters of guilt. “The tests were never meant to be used that way,” said John Fusco, who ran National Patent Analytical Systems, a maker of breath-testing devices.

Yet the tests have become all but unavoidable. Every state punishes drivers who refuse to take one when ordered by a police officer.

“The consequences of the legal system’s reliance on these tests are far-reaching,” say the authors. “People are wrongfully convicted based on dubious evidence. Hundreds were never notified that their cases were built on faulty tests. And when flaws are discovered, the solution has been to discard the results — letting potentially dangerous drivers off the hook.”

My opinion? Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DUI charges or any other alcohol-related driving charges. The “science” behind DUI investigations is very suspect. Hand-held portable breath tests like Alco-Sensor IV, contain fuel cells that react to the alcohol in exhaled breaths and generate an electric current — the stronger the current, the higher the alcohol level. They are inexpensive and easy to maintain, but their results can be inconsistent. Older women sometimes have trouble producing enough breath to get the machines to work. Toothpaste, mouthwash and breath mints — even hand sanitizer and burping — may throw off the test results.

Car Stop & Purse Search

Image result for vehicle search purse

In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that a passenger’s consent to a search of her purse was not spoiled by police conduct during the traffic stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Defendant Ms. Lee was the front seat passenger in a car driven by Mr. Peterman. Detective Tilleson initiated a traffic stop for two traffic infractions. Detective Tilleson asked Peterman for his identification, learned his license was suspended, and arrested him for first degree driving while license suspended or revoked. Peterman consented to a search of the car.

Detective Tilleson told Ms. Lee to step out to facilitate his search of the car. She left her purse inside the car. Detective Tilleson ran Lee’s identification information to determine if she had a driver’s license so she could drive the car if it was not impounded. He learned Lee had a valid driver’s license and a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

Lee began to pace back and forth near the car. At some point, Detective Fryberg directed Lee to sit on a nearby curb. During a conversation, Lee told Detective Tilleson the purse in the car was hers. Detective Tilleson asked Lee for permission to search her purse, telling her that he was asking “due to her prior drug conviction.” He also gave Lee warnings pursuant to State v. Ferrier that she was not obligated to consent and that she could revoke consent or limit the scope of the search at any time.

Lee consented to the search. When Detective Tilleson asked Lee if there was anything in her purse he should be concerned about, she said there was some heroin inside. Detectives found heroin and methamphetamine in her purse, advised Lee of her Miranda rights, and arrested her for possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver.

Before trial, Lee moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of her purse. The trial court denied Lee’s motion to suppress the results of the search of her purse. The court found “the testimony of the detectives involved was more credible than the defendant’s testimony. The trial court also determined that all of Lee’s statements were voluntary and that none were coerced. Finally, the court concluded that Lee validly consented to a search of her purse.

At the bench trial, the judge found Lee guilty as charged. Lee appealed on arguments that she did not validly consent to the search of her purse because the detectives unlawfully seized her.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police exceeded the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop by asking Ms. Lee’s consent to search her purse while mentioning her prior drug conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals stated that both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search or seizure unless an exception applies. Voluntary consent is an exception to the warrant requirement.

“But an otherwise voluntary consent may be vitiated by an unlawful seizure,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “When analyzing a passenger’s consent to search the purse she left in
the car, we start with the traffic stop that led to the search.”

Here, the Court said the Fourth Amendment and WA Constitution both recognize an
investigative stop exception to the warrant requirement as set forth in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. “The rationale of Terry applies by analogy to traffic stops applies by analogy to traffic stops,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals explained that the proper scope of a Terry stop depends on the purpose of the stop, the amount of physical intrusion upon the suspect’s liberty, and the length of time the suspect is detained. A lawful Terry stop is limited in scope and duration to fulfilling the investigative purpose of the stop. “Once that purpose is fulfilled, the stop must end,” reasoned the Court.

Ultimately, the Court found that once the arrested driver consented to a search of the vehicle, it was not unreasonable for the detective to ask the passenger – here, Ms. Lee – if she consented to a search of the purse she left in the car. The detectives legitimately checked Lee’s identification to determine whether she was a licensed driver and could drive the car from the scene following Peterson’s arrest. And the search of the purse occurred roughly 18 minutes after the traffic stop began.

“We conclude Lee’s voluntary consent to search her purse was not vitiated by police conduct at the traffic stop. Specifically, under the totality of the circumstances, the police did not exceed the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop.”

In addition, the Court reasoned that the mention of Lee’s prior drug conviction must also be considered as part of the totality of the circumstances. “Here, there was a single mention of the conviction in passing,” said the Court. “There was no physical intrusion upon Lee.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the police did not exceed the reasonable scope or duration of the traffic stop under the totality of the circumstances. Therefore, Lee failed to establish that her voluntary consent to search her purse was vitiated by police conduct. Her conviction was affirmed.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search and seizure by the police. Hiring competent and experienced defense counsel is the first and best step toward justice.

Bellingham’s Most Dangerous Intersections

Informative article by David Rasbach of the Bellingham Herald reports on statistics provided by the Bellingham Police Department Traffic Division showing Bellingham’s most dangerous intersection.

Apparently, at least in terms of the sheer number of accidents, West Bakerview Road and Northwest Drive reigns as the most dangerous intersection in the city.

In a distracted driving study conducted by its traffic division from January 2016 through June 2017, Bellingham Police received 1,350 reports of accidents within city limits, regardless of severity or injury. Of those, 43 accidents occurred at the intersection of Bakerview and Northwest — the highest total of any intersection in town.

Rasbach also reports that three of the top four most dangerous intersections during the 18-month study were in that same corridor: West Bakerview Road and Eliza Avenuehad the third highest accident total with 22 wrecks, while West Bakerview Road and Cordata Parkway was fourth highest with 18.

The only intersection breaking up Bakerview’s stranglehold on the top of Bellingham’s dangerous intersections list — Lakeway Drive and Lincoln Street, which had 25 reported accidents — is very similar, with two busy shopping centers and a school occupying three of the four corners. Nearby Lakeway Drive and King Street tied for sixth-most dangerous with Woburn Street and Barkley Boulevard with 14 reported accidents, each.

Also, the lone roundabout at Cordata Parkway and West Kellogg Road had 16 accidents reported.

Please contact my office if you, a family member or friend are criminally charged for traffic-related incidents. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to be charged with DUI, Reckless Driving, Negligent Driving, Driving While License Suspended, Eluding and/or numerous traffic citations. Bellingham’s dangerous intersections only exacerbate the situation and make it more likely that an unlawful pretextual pullover will happen.

Most of all, drive safe!

Speeding / Reckless Driving

Image result for speeding reckless driving

Interesting article by Robert Mittendorf of the Bellingham Herald discusses the increased dangers of speeding and Reckless Driving in Washington and Whatcom County.

Apparently, the WA State Patrol has aircraft and personnel dedicated to surveying and catching motorists  who drive recklessly. WA State Patrol Traffic Aircraft

According to a report from personal finance website WalletHub, Washington is first among U.S. states where speeding is automatically considered Reckless Driving, seventh in average cost increase of insurance after one speeding ticket, and tenth for minimum jail time for a first Reckless Driving offense.

Mittendorf reports that in Washington, a first-time Reckless Driving is a gross misdemeanor conviction which could result in a year in jail, a $5,000 fine and a suspended license. And according to Mittendorf, even though speeding alone is legally considered reckless driving in Washington, a police officer won’t always add reckless charge to a speeding ticket, said Trooper Heather Axtman of the Washington State Patrol.

Mittendorf also reports that CarInsurance.com says a speeding ticket could result in a 10 percent increase in insurance premiums for three to five years, depending on the company and other factors, including how long the policy holder has been a client.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with driving-related crimes in Skagit and Whatcom county.

Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway

Image result for ON RAMP

In State v. Brooks, the WA Court of Appeals held that the neutral area separating a highway on-ramp from an adjacent lane of travel does not meet the definition of “roadway.” A driver who crosses this area is properly stopped for a violation of Driving with Wheels Off Roadway under RCW 46.61.670.

BACKGROUND FACTS

While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks’s car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a “neutral area.” A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. The drawing below is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks:

Image result for ON RAMP NEUTRAL AREA

A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks’s vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without probable cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks’s merger over the highway’s neutral area constituted “driving with wheels off roadway,” in violation of RCW 46.61.670. 2

Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial. Later, she successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington’s definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway’s neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals addressed (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A highway’s neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway on-ramp, safe vehicle merging.”

The Court further reasoned that National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) confirmed its observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway’s neutral area. In short, the Court reasoned the MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an “island.” As such, it is an area intended for vehicle “separation.”

“Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line, the two options carry no substantive significance” said the Court of Appeals. “Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is prohibited. The whole point of a neutral area is to exclude vehicles and promote orderly and efficient traffic flow,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that Ms. Brooks failed to maintain her vehicle wheels on an area of the highway meeting the statutory definition of a roadway. A vehicle stop was therefore permitted under Washington’s wheels off roadway statute. Consequently, the superior court’s order on appeal from the district court is reversed.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of caselaw on what constitutes “Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway.” Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges following after a police officer pullover where this citation led to arrest. It’s quite possible to suppress the fruits of a search based on unlawful stop, search and/or seizure.

Poll: 6 In 10 Black Americans Say Police Unfairly Stopped Them Or A Relative

Image result for black motorist stopped by police

News article by Joe Neel  of NPR says that a new poll out this week finds that 60 percent of black Americans say they or a family member have been stopped or treated unfairly by police because they are black. In addition, 45 percent say they or a family member have been treated unfairly by the courts because they are black. The poll is a collaboration between NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The poll reveals the consequences of these stops for black Americans personally and across society — 31 percent of poll respondents say that fear of discrimination has led them to avoid calling the police when in need. And 61 percent say that where they live, police are more likely to use unnecessary force on a person who is black than on a white person in the same situation.

Previous polls have asked similar questions, but ours is unique in that it’s the first to ask about lifetime experiences with policing. It’s part of NPR’s ongoing series “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America.”

Pew Research poll in 2016 asked whether people had been unfairly stopped by police because of race or ethnicity in the previous 12 months and found that 18 percent of black people said yes. A 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll asked whether this had ever happened and found 41 percent of black people said yes.

Neel reports that the NPR poll differs from Pew in that NPR asked not only about a much longer period but also whether people had been unfairly stopped or treated because of their race or ethnicity. Also the NPR poll differ from CBS in that NPR included the word “unfairly.” Finally, the NPR poll differs from both the Pew and CBS polls because NPR asked whether a person or a family member had had this experience, which gives a better sense of the presence of these experiences in respondents’ life and surroundings.

Neel also reports that the black American data from our poll, released Tuesday, were compiled from 802 black Americans as part of a large national representative probability survey of 3,453 adults from Jan. 26 to April 9. The margin of error for the full black American sample is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

It is imperative to contact a competent attorney if you, a friend or family member were pulled over, searched and/or seized by police under suspicious circumstances. Please contact my office for a free consultation.

Fourth of July is One of the Deadliest Days For Drunk Driving

Image result for drunk driving fourth of july

Excellent news article by reporter German Lopez of Vox discusses how the Fourth of July is among the deadliest days for drunk driving every year, thanks to people both drinking and driving more.

According to an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, between 2010 and 2014, July 4 had the second highest percent of car crash deaths that were linked to alcohol, and July 3 was also in the top 10.

Lopez gives a scale on how the 10 deadliest days broke down, with the percentage noting how many of the car crash deaths involved a blood alcohol level of 0.08 g/dL or more:

  1. January 1: 62 percent (364 of 591 car crash deaths)
  2. July 4: 47 percent (278 of 592 car crash deaths)
  3. December 24: 41 percent (191 of 461 car crash deaths)
  4. February 6: 41 percent (151 of 366 car crash deaths)
  5. July 24: 41 percent (207 of 502 car crash deaths)
  6. July 3: 41 percent (219 of 533 car crash deaths)
  7. March 9: 41 percent (161 of 396 car crash deaths)
  8. December 25: 41 percent (137 of 338 car crash deaths)
  9. April 21: 40 percent (176 of 435 car crash deaths)
  10. April 17: 40 percent (176 of 438 car crash deaths)

Also, Lopez reported that although drunk driving deaths have plummeted over the past few decades. In 1981, drunk driving killed more than 21,000 people. By 2015, that figure was cut in half. An array of reforms played a big role in that reduction, including raising the legal alcohol age to 21, pushing police to take the enforcement of drunk driving laws much more seriously, and general improvements in car and traffic safety.

But much of that action happened in the 1980s and ’90s, when MADD and other advocacy groups came together in a strong, well-funded effort to take drunk driving more seriously. Since then, the issue has fallen off the national radar.

 Alcohol’s problems extend far beyond drunk driving as well. Alcohol is linked to at least 88,000 deaths in the US each year, only about an eighth of which are driving-related. That estimate comes from 2006 through 2010, but more recent data suggests that at least some alcohol deaths are trending up: Between 2010 and 2015, the number of alcohol-induced deaths (those that involve direct health complications from alcohol, like liver cirrhosis) rose from less than 26,000 to more than 33,000.

Based on the research, there is also a lot more that America could be doing to prevent alcohol-related deaths — yet there is little media or public attention to this issue, so there is little pressure for lawmakers to put this research into action. The result is that one of the big causes of death in America continues to kill thousands of people a year.

DEALING WITH INCREASED DEATH TOLLS RELATED TO ALCOHOL ABUSE.

Lopez points out that when Americans think about alcohol policy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Prohibition, which effectively banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. That solution, of course, did not work. Still, Lopez suggests the following other policies could help address the negative safety impacts of drinking.

  • A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
  • Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets (such as liquor stores) in an area through stricter licensing, for example, can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
  • Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety programeffectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
  • Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.

These are just a few of the ideas that experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and misuse without outright banning it.

Maybe these policies still go too far for some people. Different individuals will likely disagree on whether these proposals go too far in restricting personal liberty, even if they do save some lives. But the research suggests such policies are at least worth considering.

Yet lawmakers have paid very little attention to alcohol policy. As Philip Cook, a public policy expert at Duke University who wrote Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, told Mr. Lopez, the last time Congress raised the federal alcohol tax was 1991 — and that has let the actual impact of the tax erode due to increasing inflation:

“The great opportunity we have is to restore taxes to the real value that they had a few decades ago. That’s justified by the current social costs of drinking, and would have all kinds of beneficial effects, while being justified just from the point of view that drinkers should pay for the damage that they do.”

My opinion? I share Mr. Lopez’s argument that part of the problem is that policymakers just don’t feel much pressure to act on these kinds of public health problems — at least in the same way they feel compelled to act on an issue like, say, terrorism. So thousands of needless deaths continue happening in America every year, including hundreds this Fourth of July.

However, if you; a friend or family member is pulled over for alcohol-related driving, contact a qualified, competent criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The consequences of DUI – ranging from jail, to high court fines to suspended/revoked drivers  licenses are too great to be trifled with.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

Image result for excuses for traffic stop

In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.

New Washington Driver’s-License Exam Tackles Pot & Cellphone Risks

A recent news article by reporter E.J. Smith III of the Seattle Times reports that today’s driver’s license exams require not only a more thorough understanding of longstanding traffic laws but also an understanding of the risks associated with smartphones and the legalization of pot.

“We wanted to add more information about impaired driving beyond the information about driving while intoxicated,” said Department of Licensing spokesman Brad Benfield. “With all the growth of cellphone use … we wanted to make sure that type of information was highlighted in the driver’s guide and test.”

E.J. Smith III reports these driving issues are timely and should be addressed. For example, he quotes a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that teen drivers spend nearly a quarter of their driving time distracted. Additionally, one in six drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington in 2014 had recently used marijuana, which is the most recent data available. Finally, according to the NSC preliminary estimates, 567 people died in motor-vehicle crashes in Washington last year, a 21 percent increase over 2014. Nationally, the increase was 8 percent.

“The old test didn’t have any questions on distractions,” said Nur Hassan, who has run MLK Simple Driving School in Seattle for three years. “Driving is very serious business, so people should not try to take it lightly or try to put in other distractions.”

My opinion? Kudos to the Department of Licensing for addressing issues of distracted driving and marijuana use. This is an excellent step in the right direction. Today’s teen driver’s need to know the risks of their driving behavior.

I practice a wide range of criminal defense, everything from low-level misdemeanors to Federal charges. I’m honored to represent them through difficult times. I’ve assisted clients who are minors charged with various forms of DUI (drugs as well as alcohol). Many didn’t know the slightest amount of alcohol or drugs in their system can lead to DUI charges. Others didn’t know the repercussions of their actions.

I’m a firm believer that education is the key to prevention. That said, if you’re interested in more information on these issues then please review my Drug DUI practice area and my Legal Guide titled Drug DUI’s in Washington: The Issues & Recent Case Law.

The Neurology of Risky Driving Behavior

A very interesting article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses how a team of Canadian psychological scientists is looking at the personality, cognitive, and neurobiological factors that contribute to reckless driving behavior. By better understanding the patterns of emotional processing and risk perception shown by repeat offenders, the researchers hope to design interventions that more effectively target these subgroups of dangerous drivers.

The evidence certainly exists. According to the article, drunk driving accounts for 35-40% of all driver fatalities in Canada and the United States, and drunk driving crashes kill more than 10,000 Americans every year. Amazingly, an estimated 30% of DUI offenders will continue to drink and drive, even after being arrested and punished.

“Surprisingly, these drivers usually don’t consider themselves as risk takers,” lead author Thomas G. Brown of McGill University said. “If drivers don’t believe they are risky, they will not accept the need to change. On the other hand, if we and they don’t understand their behavior, how can they be expected to change it effectively?”

The study began when Brown and his colleagues recruited four groups of male drivers who had different criminal histories: 36 men with at least two convictions for drunk driving (DUI group); 28 reckless drivers with at least three speeding violations in the past two years (speeders); 27 men with arrests for both DUI and speeding (DWI-speeders); and 47 low-risk drivers with no history of serious traffic offenses (control group).

According to the article, participants completed a battery of personality and impulsivity assessments, ranging from a Big Five personality measure to an executive control task that assessed their sensitivity to punishment and reward. Participants’ cortisol response, a hormonal reaction to stress, was measured by collecting saliva samples before and after they completed a timed mental arithmetic task previously shown to elicit stress.

Even more interesting, participants also completed a session of simulated driving that included driving on virtual highways, merging lanes, turning at intersections, and avoiding pedestrians.

The researchers found that different subgroups of risky drivers had distinctive neurobiological profiles. Compared to the low-risk control group, speeders were prone to making decisions based on thrill-seeking and a need for high levels of stimulation. Repeat DUI offenders, in contrast, had the lowest level of risk-taking behavior while sober.

“One possibility in line with the present results is that once heavy drinking has occurred, more impulsive drivers are more vulnerable to alcohol’s disruptive effects on the behavioral control mechanisms required to avoid DWI,” the researchers explain.

All of the dangerous driving groups exhibited significant blunting in their cortisol stress response compared with the control group. Cortisol, along with other stress hormones, influences cognitive processes that range from risk assessment to encoding emotional memories. These results suggest that dysregulation of the body’s cortisol response could act as a neurobiological marker for risky driving behavior.

“Relative to the other [risky driving] profiles considered here, the profile exhibited by group DUI may be the most amenable to interventions that aim to augment recall of the negative consequences of DUI behavior and pre-emptively decouple alcohol use from driving,” the researchers conclude.

Stated differently, interventions designed to improve drivers’ recall of the negative consequences of drinking and driving are effective for preventing drunk driving. This explains the findings why repeat DUI offenders had the lowest level of risk-taking behavior while sober.

My opinion? The study is interesting, for sure. Not surprisingly, the criminal justice system uses many of these these psychological deterrents to “decouple alcohol use from driving.” When it comes to DUI cases, gaining a worthwhile reduction of the charges often means the defendant obtaining an alcohol/drug evaluation, attending mandatory treatment, attending AA meetings and attending a Victim Impact Panel. Additionally, the financial costs of DUI fines and mandatory ignition interlock devices are constant reminders to DUI offenders that future risky behavior is simply not worth it.

That said, hiring a competent DUI attorney to fight DUI charges might be a worthy endeavor. The basic legal issues surrounding a DUI arrest are (1) whether the stop was lawful, (2) whether there was enough evidence to arrest, (3) whether the officer informed the defendant of Implied Consent Warnings, and (4) whether the defendant either (a) refused the BAC breathalyzer machine or (b) blew over .08 and/or had .05 nanograms of active THC in their blood when pulled over.

If you’re charged with DUI, the best advice is to immediately contact a competent DUI defense attorney to discuss your case. Good luck!