In addition to “drunk driving,” “drugged driving” may be a much more widespread problem than the relevant authorities are equipped to manage.
Drivers who are impaired by easily accessible recreational or prescription drugs occupy streets and highways at alarmingly high rates. And experts consistently report that a drugged driver can be just as lethal as a drunk driver. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 16% of motor vehicle crashes involve drugs (legal and illegal) other than alcohol. As many as 13% of nighttime weekend drivers have traceable amounts of marijuana in their systems.
Indeed, a car is oftentimes “the accessory used to obtain and sell drugs and drug driving occur[s] within this contextual behavior of dependent use.” In most states, both law enforcement and the court system are hamstrung by lumping drug-impaired driving cases with alcohol-impaired ones.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, seven million people drove a car under the influence of alcohol and illicit drugs in the past year. An article in the American Journal of Public Health notes that “the prevalence of drivers with prescription opioids detected in their systems at the time of death surged from 1.0% in 1995 to 7.2% in 2015.” Illicit drugs include marijuana, cocaine (and crack cocaine), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, and the nonmedical use of prescription – type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives. In the category of pain management drugs are the increasingly common opioids: hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and codeine, which have serious impact on drivers’ ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.
One of the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety and sleep disorder are benzodiazepines, which “possess anxiolytic, sedative, and muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant properties.” A study of driving-impairment and prescription sedatives notes that “a large body of evidence points to an increased risk of crash involvement after administration of a benzodiazepine.”
An article published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence states that “a growing body of evidence suggests motorists, in particular younger drivers, are in fact more likely to consume illicit substances and then drive than drink and drive.” The article presents a study of over 7,000 under-aged Texans with a past DUI arrest who were admitted to a treatment program between 1997 and 2007. It compares program clients with and without a DUI arrest, assessing long term predictors for recovery, relapse, and driving recidivism. Another analysis of the 2007 National Roadside Survey data states that “Young drivers (between 21-25 years of age) are approximately 2.5 times more likely to use marijuana and other drugs and drive rather than to drink alcohol and drive.”
The dangers of drugs and alcohol in the context of operating a motor vehicle is the effect of mixing substances. As reported by scientists at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, “Chronic poly-substance use compounds the psychological effects and potential toxicity of any one substance, which increases the likelihood of involvement in accidents, such as motor vehicle crashes, and further endangers the lives of the user and others.”
By comparison, other research indicates that older drivers present a considerable hazard on the road as a function of their tendency to ignore the potential dangers of combining certain prescription drugs (such as pain medication for common ailments like arthritis) with alcohol.
Again, contact FVF if you ever have questions about how a driver who mixed drugs and alcohol, or multiple prescription drugs could affect your case.
A roadside measurement of controlled substances is exceedingly difficult when no traces are evidence in a breathalyzer test, which is primarily designed to measure the body’s metabolism of alcohol. Prescription and recreational drugs may only be detectable with more invasive testing of, for example, urine, blood, saliva, and hair. For these tests, refusal rates are high. To complicate matters further, the testing technology may not sufficiently reflect whether a person was impaired while he/she was driving a car, since many chemical substances remain in the human body for days or weeks. Moreover, there is no standard test like the Field Sobriety Test, or even a national legal limit comparable to the 0.08 blood alcohol concentration limit. The sheer variety of chemical substances that are available as narcotics make accurate assessment too complicated for in-the-field processing.
A potential reason why driving while under the influence of drugs is prevalent even among drivers who have a negative attitude toward driving after drinking is the perceived minor risk of being apprehended by police. Many who routinely drive under the influence of drugs believe that their skill and experience compensate for any possible effects of the drug on their driving performance. Offenders who believe that their drug-related impairment is unlikely to be detected by police may be unmotivated to monitor their own drug-use prior to driving a vehicle; or may be unmotivated to select an alternative means of transportation during or after drug use. In these cases, risky behavior leading to severe injury and damage is a choice.
In a Congressional Report on Marijuana Impaired Driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration presents scientific findings regarding the effects of marijuana on driving related skills, including: slow reaction time in response to unexpected events; problems with road tracking, including lane position variability; and decreased or divided attention, target recognition, and cognitive performance, including route planning and decision making.
As some states have legalized recreational use of marijuana, and habits of use become more prevalent, questions arise about public safety implications. Some states like Colorado and Washington have instituted penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana, which like the alcohol-related equivalent may include monetary fines, loss of license, etc. Nevertheless, an online survey of 865 marijuana users in those states reports disconcerting figures: “Prevalence of past-year driving while under the influence of marijuana was 43.6% among respondents. The prevalence of driving within 1 hour of using marijuana at least 5 times in the past month was 23.9%.” Another important discovery of the research was that, while knowledge of the legal consequences of driving under the influence of marijuana and perceptions that such behavior is unsafe both corresponded to decreased odds of driving while high, the correspondence was significantly higher for the latter. That is, marijuana users are significantly more likely to drive under the influence of marijuana depending on whether they perceive this behavior to be dangerous compared to their perceptions about the likelihood of being legally penalized.
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