Roadside drug testing gets green light in Kent, other counties

A Nov. 3, 2017 image of the device that tests drivers' swabs for drugs.

DIMONDALE, Mich. (WOOD) — While efforts to take drunken drivers off Michigan roads seems to be working, Michigan State Police say the number of fatal crashes involving another type of impaired driver continues to increase:

“People who make a decision to get behind the wheel high and endanger themselves and other people on the roadway,” explained Michigan State Police traffic safety specialist, 1st Lt. Jim Flegel.

The number of deaths caused by drugged drivers rose 32 percent from 2015 to 2016.

But identifying someone on drugs during a traffic stop can be more difficult than someone who’s been drinking. That’s the reason behind a one year pilot program starting Wednesday.

Michigan State Police and local law enforcement agencies from Kent, Berrien, Delta, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties will launch a new roadside test to identify drugged drivers.

Those five counties were chosen for a variety of reasons, including the number of impaired driving crashes, impaired drivers arrested and trained drug recognition experts in each county.

Here’s how the program works: A driver is pulled over for an offense. If the officer suspects the driver is under the influence of drugs, he or she has their mouth swabbed.

The swab in inserted into a device that looks for evidence of drugs in their saliva. It takes about five minutes for the roadside test to determine if there are drugs in the driver’s system.

“It tests for amphetamines, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines, cannabis or THC, cocaine and opiates,” said Flegel. “That doesn’t mean that somebody can’t be impaired on some other controlled substance, but that’s up to the drug recognition expert to determine.”

Drug recognition experts are specially trained officers who evaluate whether a driver is impaired using a 12-step process. Depending on the outcome, the driver can be arrested for driving under the influence.

The increase in the number of fatal crashes involving drugged drivers prompted state lawmakers to pass what’s believed to be unprecedented legislation allowing the new program.

MSP say the swabbing and recognition tests are comparable to roadside breath and dexterity test for drunken drivers. Refuse to take the swab test and it’s the same civil infraction as refusing a roadside breathalyzer.

While state police are confident the program passes any constitutional test, there are bound to be legal challenges to the procedures.

“It’s not unconstitutional to take an oral fluid swab,” says Flegel. “It’s actually less invasive than actually taking blood from a person.”