Now more common than drunk driving, 'drugged driving' poses new challenges for police

'Defensive driving has a whole new meaning'

CINCINNATI -- William Rust had ridden many times along U.S. 52 in Anderson Township before he was struck and thrown from his bicycle last week. He did not survive the crash.

The 61-year-old's death was not a result of Rust being unfamiliar with the route. The crash came, deputies say, as the result of a drugged driver.

It's the latest in a growing trend that recent data show has overtaken drunk driving as one of the leading perils of the road.

That's according to a recent report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association. The national report based on 2015 data found that illegal drugs were present in more than 40 percent of fatally injured drivers for whom test results were available.

A recent AAA survey also found that a majority of Ohio drivers now see driving after using illegal drugs as a "bigger threat" than those who drive after drinking alcohol, according to regional spokeswoman Cheryl Parker.

"The new statistics mirror what the public is already feeling which is the dire threat to their safety posed by drugged driving," Parker said in a news release. "This is especially significant when you consider the number of years it took to get the public to fully understand the dangers posed by drinking and driving."

The trend also presents law enforcement with a new set of challenges, deputies say.

'Another senseless death'

Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies say 33-year-old Steven Sickle admitted to being under the influence of heroin when he drifted off the road, striking Rust and throwing him from his bicycle.

The crash was a near hit-and-run, deputies reported, until Sickle was later found after having continued driving after the crash.

Sickle is facing felony charges of fleeing the scene of a deadly automobile crash and aggravated vehicular homicide. His attorney now says he denies having "snorted dope" or knowing that he hit anyone -- as he's quoted saying in a court affidavit. 

Rust wasn't just a locally well-known cyclist. He also owned The Candle Lab in Over-the-Rhine.

William Rust, 61, was struck and killed while riding his bicycle on U.S. 52 in Anderson Township. Deputies say the driver had taken heroin. (Provided)

A joint statement from leaders with the Cincinnati Cyle Club, Queen City Bike, the Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance and well-known Ohio and Kentucky bicycle attorney Steve Magas called the crash that killed Rust "another senseless death."

"This is a tragedy," the statement read, pointing to the striking similarities between Rust's death and the on-road death of another well-known cyclist, Michael Prater.

In January 2016, Prater, 42, was riding along U.S. 52 when deputies said a driver high on 10 different drugs, including heroin, struck his bicycle and fled the scene. That driver, 34-year-old Melinda Woodall, would later be convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Woodall called it "a horrible mistake I will pay for the rest of my life."

'Defensive driving has a new meaning today'

"People that are using drugs, especially with heroin, they're not really thinking about what they're doing when they're getting behind the wheel," Parker said. "They don't remember how they get from point A to point B."

"Defensive driving has a new meaning today," she said.

It's something Kenton County Police Chief Spike Jones said has meant law enforcement agencies have needed to adapt.

"We've been dealing with the issue of impaired driving for some time," Jones said, "but we're seeing today these drugs that seem to be more devastating."

Jones said what makes a drugged driver different from a drunk driver is usually the driver's urgency to take the drug, often shooting up right in the driver's seat, sometimes even while the car is moving.

"These folks are so addicted that they can't wait to get where they're going."

The growing drugged driving trend has prompted local, state, national and even international agencies to begin developing new strategies and training programs to help officers in the field to recognize the influence of drugs on a traffic incident.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, has developed a Drug Recognition Expert certification program that the organization offers each year. Jones said this training relies heavily on the standard field sobriety test. It also goes beyond that, teaching officers how to identify several categories of drugs and their effects, as well as how to deal physically and psychologically with a driver suspected of being impaired on a drug.

Bottom line, though, Jones said: "What helps us best is observation from other motorists on the road. We're getting more and more people calling in."

Jones said, besides the typical weaving and inability to control the vehicle, motorists can identify drug-impaired drivers in other ways. That includes driving too slow -- think way too slow -- or failure to operate proper turn signals, or other signs of unawareness. Some are found asleep at traffic lights or stop signs.

He said the key is consistency in this driving behavior. 

"If it's a consistent pattern, it will be pretty obvious," he said.

Jones said anyone who sees what appears to be an impaired driver on the road should call the police and give the make and model of the vehicle and -- if it can be read from a safe distance -- the license plate number. A description of the driver is also helpful, he said.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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