SALT LAKE CITY — Drug-related fatal car crashes were up in Utah last year, while alcohol-related fatalities were down, a new state report shows.
Also, crashes involving drugs — marijuana, methamphetamine and hydrocodone being the most common — ballooned 119 percent, going from 320 in 2014 to 701 last year.
In all, 104 Utahns died in incidents where some chose to drink or use drugs before getting behind the wheel in 2015, and the trend has continued this year, according to the 2016 DUI report to the Utah Legislature. The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice compiles the report.
Deadly collisions in which a driver tested positive for illicit, prescribed or over-the-counter drugs rose from 38 in 2014 to 67 last year, a 76 percent increase. It's the highest number in the past nine years and accounts for nearly a quarter of all fatal crashes in the state.
Meantime, crashes involving alcohol dropped 18 percent from 45 to 37.
Mary Lou Emerson, director of the Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council, noted that those numbers were just the opposite the year before when alcohol-related fatal crashes were up and drug-related fatalities were down.
Emerson presented the report to the Judiciary Interim Committee on Wednesday.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said he wondered if the state was working so hard to catch a few drivers sleepy from taking antihistamines that it's "ruining people lives that shouldn't even be caught in this net."
Cox said he's worried about people being stopped and charged with crimes that perhaps they shouldn't be charged with.
Emerson said a valid prescription is an affirmative defense, but medications come with warnings and doctors should explain drowsiness could be a side effect.
"There is some responsibility on the person's part, too, to not drive," she said.
Kim Gibb, state driver license division bureau chief, said driving on the highway is considered implied consent to a chemical test under state law.
Police need reasonable suspicion and probable cause to pull over a driver. An officer must place someone under arrest before asking them to submit to a chemical test. If the driver refuses, the officer could obtain a warrant for a blood draw, Gibb said.7 comments on this story
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said he's concerned that the driver license division can revoke a person's license but a judge has no authority to restore it. Banning someone from driving, he said, "totally disrupts" their lives.
He raised the idea of providing "hardship" licenses like some states have to allow a person to drive to work or school. He called ignition lock devices "stigmatizing" for drivers.
Christensen said it's not popular to advocate for balance in this area of the law. At the same time, he said he doesn't want to put anyone at risk on the roads.