PLATTE -- A recent law enforcement effort in eastern Nebraska this week reflected a rising national trend of drugged driving.

Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff said in the past few years, his department is becoming better equipped with the knowledge to spot and stop drivers who take drugs and then get behind the wheel.

"I don't know if the numbers are rising or if it's the fact that law enforcement is a little more aware of it, and we're better prepared to respond to it," said Wemhoff.

In 2019, one of Wemhoff's deputies volunteered to become a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). As demand for the specialty grew, a second deputy later went through the intense training. The two are so specialized that surrounding counties and other law enforcement agencies often call them in for assistance, according to Wemhoff. 

The thorough DRE training process allows DREs to evaluate not only whether a driver is drugged -- but under what substance. Sometimes, it's something as seemingly harmless as an allergy pill. 

"There are many drugs that are not illegal, there are prescription drugs that you can take and be under the influence," Wemhoff said. Even over-the-counter drugs, for colds, can lead to fatal crashes, if they have the wrong side effects. 

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) representatives agree that all substances need to be treated carefully.

"Many of us ignore the dangerous side effects on our prescriptions," said Sara Draper of MADD Nebraska. She noted that the common warning on prescription bottles "do not operate heavy machinery" applies to cars, too. 

If that seems like an overstatement, consider that a National Roadside Survey (NRS) suggests one in four drivers at night are impaired. A fourth of those are under multiple substances, as poly-drug abuse rises.

Wemhoff noted another reason for the increase in DUI arrests in the past decade, is that cellphones allow people to report a driver while they're still on the road.

However, Wemhoff and Draper both brought up the challenge that there is lack of data on drugged driving.

The little data which does exist (though aged) does show a concerning trend.

"The prevalence of drugs among deceased drivers has increased from 33% drug-positive in 2009 to 43% drug-positive in 2015," wrote the NRS. It continues to conclude there is an "imperative need to improve FARS data collection and reporting."

Draper suggested the gap in studies may be because it is much more slippery to prosecute.

"The lack of a clear link between impairment and drug concentrations in the body makes it difficult to define drug impairment, which, in turn, exacerbates challenges related to enforcement and public awareness," noted a 2015 report to Congressional Committees from the US Government Accountability Office. 

Draper said she believes it is therefore imperative to garner more drug recognition experts, like the two deputies in Columbus. That, and for drivers to be responsible. 

"Always, make the alternative choice," said Draper.

"Driving is one of the most dangerous things we do in our life, ever," said Wemhoff. "I have yet to respond to an accident where someone said you know, 'I knew I was going to get in an accident today,'" Wemhoff said.