TOWANDA - Officials in Bradford County say they are focusing more of their time addressing the problem of people driving under the influence of drugs.

Drug Recognition Expert Randy Epler of the Towanda Borough police, for example, said that he was called to assist Bradford County police departments 33 times in 2011 to determine whether drivers were under the influence of drugs, up from the six times that he provided that assistance in 2010.

"A very big majority (of the 33 cases) was bath salts," said Epler, who also serves as the Towanda Borough police chief.

Epler had to receive specialized training to become a drug recognition expert (DRE).

Epler said that part of the increase in the demand for his services is due to the fact that police officers countywide are becoming more knowledgeable about the symptoms of drivers under the influence of newer synthetic drugs, and to the increased awareness that he holds a certification of drug recognition expert, which he received in 2009.

But the increase in the requests for his services as a DRE is also due to the rise in the use of bath salts, which is a stimulant, over the past couple of years, he said.

"We're seeing more and more drug-related fatal crashes (motor vehicle accidents)" in Bradford County, Bradford County Coroner Tom Carman said.

So far in 2012, there have been 27 drug-related fatalities in Bradford County, the highest number ever in the county, Carman said, adding that roughly one-third of those 27 fatalities occurred as a result of a motor vehicle accident where the driver was under the influence of a drug.

The best defense against a drug-impaired driver is to wear a seat belt when driving, the coroner said.

Carman and Epler spoke at a press conference Tuesday in Towanda about the problem of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

At the press conference, State Police Cpl. Al Ogden said there were thousands of DUI-related crashes that were investigated by the state police last year in Pennsylvania, and he said the recorded number of DUI-related crashes has been increasing.

Ogden attributed the increase in the number of DUI crashes to a greater awareness among the state police of the symptoms of drivers impaired by drugs.

At the press conference, Sylvia Davis of Montoursville recalled how her 19-year-old son, Jamie, had been killed 22 years ago after he got into a car that was driven by a friend who had been drinking.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think of him," Davis said. "It was 22 years ago, and that pain never goes away."

Davis said the car her son was in went off Route 44 in Williamsport, struck a tree and flipped onto its roof. She said her son, who was killed instantly, was in the back seat strapped in a seat belt and was found hanging upside down from his seat belt.

The driver of the car, Jeff Bartholomew, who was 20 at the time and living in South Williamsport, was convicted of vehicular homicide in connection with the crash and served 11 1/2 months in the Lycoming County Prison, Davis said.

Chris Smith of the Community Traffic Safety Project of Lycoming County noted that the Pennsylvania DUI Association's DUI Victims Moving Memorial was parked nearby, and it displays the names of about 1,400 people who have been killed by impaired drivers in Pennsylvania.

The memorial serves as a record of the personal tragedies that have occurred when people drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol or get into a car that is driven by an impaired driver, she said.

Cpl. Ogden also said there has been a growing use of designated drivers in the state.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.