The Washougal Police Department hopes a new pilot program will reduce traffic-related fatalities.
Washougal police and deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office have partnered with Clark County Target Zero and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to allow quicker blood draws of people suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Both local law enforcement agencies have set aside rooms in their facilities for officers and deputies to draw blood.
“We understand how much of a need there is for this,” said Zane Freschette, acting commander of the Washougal Police Department. “We have done research, and we don’t see a downside to it. This seems like a no-brainer from our perspective.”
The state’s traffic safety commission is funding the program, which is currently being staffed by Washougal police officer Ashley Goulding and four Clark County Sheriff’s deputies.
Freschette said Washougal hopes to have more officers trained for the program in the near future.
“It’s definitely a time-saver,” said Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn. “You won’t have to take (the drivers) to the hospital to have it done, or have fire or emergency medical service (personnel) come here. Nobody wants to be part of a chain of custody, right?”
Washington State’s “implied consent” law states that a person who has been lawfully arrested for driving or being in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs is deemed to have given consent to a breath test to determine alcohol concentration.
If the subject refuses a breath test, or if the arresting officer can articulate probable cause for an impaired driving offense, a warrant may be obtained for a sample of the subject’s blood, which is typically drawn by medical personnel in an ambulance or in a hospital setting.
Prior to the pilot program, Washougal police contracted with American Medical Response for blood-draw services, but Freschette said the emergency medical responders didn’t always have the resources to help when officers required a fast blood-draw for a suspected impaired driver.
Freschette said Washougal officers are seeing more blood draws than ever before.
“As a result of that, we’ve had problems getting blood drawn (in a timely fashion). It’s important to draw blood quickly, and that ability hasn’t always been available to us,” he said. “(This program) will make our job easier because we won’t have to rely on (people) who may not use the level of care that is required for evidence.”
After researching similar programs in Washington and other states, the sheriff’s office determined that having deputies perform blood-drawing duties reduces processing time for law enforcement and arrestees, and ensures greater accountability and evidence chain of custody.
The sheriff’s office added in a news release that prior requests of medical providers to conduct blood draws for criminal purposes was time-consuming and distracting.
“Our desire for this program is to give our (deputies) an effective and efficient tool to investigate impaired driving while preserving the rights and safety of our citizens,” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins stated in the news release. “Equipping trained deputies to conduct legal blood draws greatly streamlines our abilities, freeing a deputy return to patrol in a fraction of the time.”
Nationwide, approximately one-third of all traffic fatalities involve an impaired driver, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths in 2018, and in Washington, nearly half of traffic fatalities involve an impaired driver, according to the news release.
“We enjoy this partnership with Clark County and the Washougal Police Department in supporting (driving under the influence) investigations,” Clark County Target Zero manager Hilary Torres stated in the news release. “This blood draw program and others like it in Washington are serving as examples for combating DUI and related traffic crimes as one of many tools we are employing to ultimately reduce traffic-related fatalities.”
The increased frequency of DUI citations involving the use of multiple substances has emphasized the importance of the new program, Freschette said.
According to a 2018 report issued by the traffic commission, 44 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington from 2008-16 tested positive for two or more substances — the most common was alcohol, followed by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
“Although research-based estimates of the risks posed by THC have varied greatly, all studies included in this report agree that combining alcohol and THC will only further inflate the level of impairment and crash risk,” the report stated. “The deadly consequences of combining these two impairing substances and driving are already apparent in Washington fatal crash data.”
Since 2012, the number of drivers impaired by more than one substance and involved in fatal crashes has increased by an average of 15 percent every year, according to the report. By 2016, this number was more than double the number of alcohol-only drivers and five times higher than the number of THC-only drivers involved in fatal crashes, the report stated.
“When it comes to driving, everybody has known for a long time that driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous, but recent studies have indicated that it’s exponentially more dangerous to drive after combining alcohol and other drugs,” Freschette said. “This program allows us to not only make an arrest, but to gain so much more knowledge about the frequency of these occurrences. We know from being out on the streets how frequently it’s happening, but we didn’t have the statistics to reflect that (knowledge). This program gives us a leg up to prove what we already know.”