The Nebraska State Capitol

Law enforcement officers in western Nebraska combat the dangers of drug-impaired driving daily: kids and adults leaving pot-legal Colorado, then swerving up Interstate 80 and Nebraska 71.

Officers in eastern Nebraska have seen a spike as well, with Omaha and Lincoln police and the Nebraska State Patrol pulling over more drug-impaired drivers who didn’t drink alcohol.

Crashes on Nebraska roads this year involving a drug-impaired driver have claimed 28 lives. That’s more than double the drug-related driving deaths of a few years ago, World-Herald reporting found.

Some of the increase might have to do with officers and troopers getting better at spotting the signs of drug-impaired drivers, authorities told The World-Herald’s Henry Cordes.

But it’s also true that the deserved stigma of driving drunk hasn’t yet carried over to driving under the influence of drugs. That has to change, because the dangers of such impairments are real.

More than one of every 10 Nebraska traffic fatalities this year involved at least one driver on drugs. That level of loss demands seat belt-level seriousness from state lawmakers.

Given the difficulties of successfully prosecuting people for driving on drugs, perhaps it’s time to examine the zero-tolerance laws that 18 states, including Iowa, have adopted on drugged driving.

Perhaps it’s time to work with other states to build a scientific consensus around the level of drugs in a person’s system that signals significant impairment.

The most common drug found in Nebraska’s drug-impaired drivers is marijuana. Half the drug-related driving deaths in Nebraska from 2011 to 2014 involved pot. It clearly affects driver performance, given that federal transportation rules prohibit pilots, truck and bus drivers from using and working.

Given this challenge, states would do well to set a reliable, reasonable legal standard for testing of drivers’ impairment levels. Important, too, is training more law enforcement officers to identify drug impairment more accurately.

Nebraska is among several states moving to respond by requiring more officer training. That’s a sound step. State and local law enforcement agencies also know they need to step up their public relations game and get the word out that drugged driving is dangerous driving.

“Impairment is impairment,” Omaha Police Officer Matthew Kelly told Cordes. He’s a specially trained drug-recognition expert often called in to help others verify a suspect’s drug impairment.

Investigators attribute the spike in drug-related driving deaths regionally to 23 states allowing medical marijuana and another four, including Colorado, allowing recreational use.

After Colorado’s legalization, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes testing positive for marijuana nearly doubled. The number of marijuana-drugged drivers who died in crashes nationally tripled from 1999 to 2010, a Columbia University study found.

Nebraska averaged about a dozen such deaths a year before spiking to 22 last year and to 28 by mid-December. In Iowa, such crashes claimed 47 lives in 2014.

These numbers should shock people out of any complacency toward “recreational drugs.” Death on this scale is worthy of a collective effort on par with the push against drunken driving.

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