What Is Drugged Driving?
Many of us are familiar with the dangers of drunk driving, but many people don’t know that drugged driving – or driving while under the influence of either illicit or legal drugs, such as narcotic prescription medications – is just as dangerous. Although there has been a decline in drunk driving as a result of education, campaigns, and law enforcement, the same attention and preventative measures need to be placed on drugged driving.
From marijuana and cocaine to amphetamines and opiates (including heroin and narcotic painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin), any drug that acts on the brain can impair motor skills, reaction time, judgment, and more. Some drivers may believe that they are driving safely because they didn’t consume alcohol, but drugs affect one’s driving ability just as much as alcohol does, and driving under the influence of drugs puts both the driver and others on the road at risk.
While marijuana is the most common illegal drug detected in drugged drivers, prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and opiates, have also been implicated in motor vehicle accidents. Many prescription labels warn against operating machinery while taking the medication, and driving while taking more medication than prescribed (prescription drug abuse) can be very dangerous.
How Common Is Drugged Driving?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2007 National Roadside Survey, more than 16 percent of people driving at night on weekends tested positive for illicit, prescription, or over-the-counter medications. About 11 percent tested positive for illicit drugs, 3.9 percent tested positive for prescription medications, and 1.1 percent tested positive for both illicit drugs and prescription medications. According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 3,952 fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs in 2009.
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that about 10.5 million people over the age of 12 reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs in 2008. The survey also found that males were more likely than females to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol (16.9 percent versus 9.2 percent), and that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol was most common among those between the ages of 21 and 25 (after age 25, the rates showed a general decline).
How Dangerous Is Drugged Driving?
Many studies have looked at the involvement of drugs in both non-fatal and fatal motor vehicle accidents. One study found that about 34 percent of motor vehicle crash victims that were admitted to a Maryland trauma center tested positive for drugs (not including alcohol), while 16 percent tested positive for only alcohol. About 9.9 percent tested positive for both alcohol and drugs, and of these, 50 percent were younger than age 18.5.
An NHTSA study in 2009 found that among drivers who were fatally injured in motor vehicle accidents, 18 percent tested positive for at least one drug; in 2005, this number was at 13 percent. This suggests that there is an increase in drugged driving, and that more education and prevention are necessary.
Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana
Marijuana is the most common illegal drug found in impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers, and those involved in motor vehicle accidents. Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that increasing levels of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) impaired behavioral and cognitive skills related to driving performance.
Another Australian study of more than 3,000 fatally injured drivers, when marijuana was found in the blood of the driver, he or she was more likely to be at fault. Also, drivers with higher THC levels were more likely to be at fault for the accident. Studies have also shown that driving impairment is significantly increased when marijuana is combined with alcohol. Many studies have found that drivers who test positive for alcohol often also test positive for THC, suggesting that drinking and drugged driving are often linked.
Drugged Driving Among Teens
Drugged driving is more common among adolescents than one might think. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2007 Monitoring the Future survey found that more than 12 percent of high school seniors reported driving after using marijuana in the two weeks preceding the survey, and the 2007 State of Maryland Adolescent Survey showed that 11.1 percent of Maryland’s licensed adolescent drivers reported driving after using marijuana on three or more occasions, and 10 percent admitted driving under the influence of a drug other than marijuana (besides alcohol).
Prevention and Education
While it’s very important for drivers, regardless of age, to be aware of the dangers of drugged driving, knowledge isn’t enough-more needs to be done to prevent drugged driving and save lives. Due to limitations on measuring drug levels in the body, it can be difficult to determine whether a driver is currently intoxicated at the scene of an accident, especially because some drugs linger in the body for days or weeks after ingestion.
Detecting the amount of alcohol in the blood is relatively easy, since 0.08 percent is the legal limit in the United States; however, there is no agreed-upon limit for drug impairment. Some states have “per se” laws, which make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if there is any detectable level of an illicit drug in the driver’s blood. Other states define drugged driving as when a drug causes the driver to be impaired.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy suggests that more states adopt the “per se” drug impairment law, that drug-testing labs develop standard screening methods to detect the presence of drugs, that researchers collect more data on drugged driving, that professionals and education communities raise awareness of drugged driving, and that law enforcement officials are trained to identify drugged drivers.
Healthcare professionals can learn to identify patients with substance abuse problems and talk to them about drugged driving, and parents should talk to young drivers about driving safely and making healthy choices. If you know someone who is suffering from a substance abuse problem and is driving while under the influence, urge them to seek treatment immediately-it could save their live and the lives of many others.