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Alcoholism & Addiction

Drunk Drivers in the ER May Be Evading Conviction

A large percentage of drunk drivers who land themselves in the emergency department are evading a drunk-driving conviction, according to a new report. 

Doctors from the University of California, Davis School of Medicine assessed the prevalence of drunk driver admissions to their emergency department based on their 2007 hospital registry. During that year, 241 drivers admitted to the emergency department had a blood alcohol level of 80 milligrams per deciliter or more (0.08% BAC or higher, California’s legal limit) yet only 59% of those admissions were convicted of driving under the influence (DUI). Although this percentage may seem high, the current rate of drunk-driving conviction leaves 41% walking away from the crime. Dr. James F. Holmes of UCD’s School of Medicine presented his team’s findings last week at the American College of Emergency Physicians 2010 Scientific Assembly.

Overall, the blood samples taken by emergency room personnel showed an average blood alcohol level of 172 milligrams per deciliter among all drunk driver patients. According to their research, Dr. Holmes and his colleagues found that the majority of drunk drivers who escaped a DUI conviction had blood alcohol levels of 200 milligrams per deciliter or less or were more ill in comparison to other drivers.

While it remains uncertain as to the exact cause of the evaded convictions, Dr. Holmes cites several reasons that may contribute to this loophole that extends from the emergency department to law enforcement. First, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits physicians from providing patient information such as blood alcohol content to others, including law enforcement. Secondly, by the time an officer arrives at the emergency department to investigate a drunk driving case, he or she is not permitted to see patients until they have been administered treatment. In the meantime, the alcohol present in a drunk-driving patient will become more and more metabolized overtime, making it difficult to ascertain the patient’s exact level of intoxication at the time of the drunk driving incident. Usually, the blood alcohol levels recorded for legal purposes are about 50 milligrams lower than the results that were recorded in the emergency department’s tests.

In comparison, the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ records on the vehicular incidents in question show that the investigating officer presumed about 11% these drunk drivers to not have been under the influence. The erroneous conclusion that these drivers were not convictable is not always due in part by the investigating officer’s negligence, but rather could have been caused to any number of these actions.

Although blood tests are not typically requested by officers who suspect a drunk driver, law enforcement does have the ability to require a blood sample from drivers suspected of DUI even if they do not provide consent. However, this rare event can only take place if the officer finds apparent signs of alcohol use, such as erratic driving, open container in the vehicle, or physical indicators of alcohol use, but feels the need to gather further evidence. Otherwise, the system is still experiencing this noticeable delay in effective DUI conviction.

During his presentation, Dr. Holmes stated that he and colleagues are in favor of legislation that would facilitate better communication between hospital facilities and law enforcement when processing drunk driving incidents. For example, some researchers are hoping to rally a state law that would require physicians to report drunk drivers admitted at their facilities to law enforcement. Yet some concerns about the proposal have suggested that such a law would dissuade injured drivers from seeking medical attention for fear of legal punishment.

Source: Reuters, Frederik Joelving, Blood tests say drunk drivers escaping conviction, October 4, 2010

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