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Changes to Wisconsin's impaired driving law needed to address 'huffing'

In Wisconsin, patrolling officers have seen a sharp increase in the number of people "huffing" and driving. Huffing involves the inhaling of hazardous contents of a spray can to get high. While the law is still evolving to include this practice in standardized vehicle codes, to date, huffing can be a form of reckless driving, which endangers other motorists on the road. 

Huffing and car accident cases

In recent months, Oshkosh Police responded to two traffic crashes involving drivers suspected of huffing hazardous substances.

In November 2012, police received a report of a vehicle that ran into a fire hydrant at the intersection of High Avenue and Brown Street. Subsequent to the accident, the motorist drove away. Fortunately, officers located the vehicle in a parking lot later that evening.

Police confirmed that a 19-year-old motorist drove the vehicle. The car experienced severe front-end damage. When the driver was detained, she admitted to huffing an unknown substance. The motorist was cited for a hit and run.

In a separate incident, authorities responded to a two-car crash on State Highway 44. In this case, a 16-year-old Oshkosh girl rear-ended a vehicle on the overpass over U.S. Highway 41. In this case, too, the motorist had been huffing a substance.  

Huffing is not an intoxicant, but…

In State v. Torbeck, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of an Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) charge because the substance that defendant huffed before she crashed her vehicle did not qualify as an “intoxicant” under Wisconsin law. Furthermore, the drug did not meet the statutory threshold of a controlled substance, a controlled substance analog, or a drug. “Intoxicant” is not defined in the definitions section of the Vehicle Code.

In Torbeck, the court looked to the plain meaning of “intoxicant” in the dictionary. The court determined that “intoxicant” means “something that intoxicates, ” and “intoxicate” means “to excite or stupefy by alcohol or drug.” Because the chemical in the case did not meet the “intoxicant” standard, the motorist was not charged with OWI. The substance did not fulfill statutory mandates of driving “under the influence, ” as well.

However, despite the ruling, the court determined that the driver nevertheless engaged in reckless driving. Under this law, no person may endanger the safety of any person or property by the negligent operation of a vehicle.

It will take a while before Wisconsin specifically addresses “huffing” in its driving statutes. However, courts are quick to assign fault in civil cases when reckless or negligent driving is involved. Therefore, a motorist guilty of reckless driving can be at fault in a motor vehicle accident case.

If you have been injured by a reckless or negligent driver, you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer today. You deserve to be compensated for your harm.

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