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Drugged Driving: The Next Big Road Safety Issue

Sobriety Check Point A big national push by governmental and non-profit advocacy organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has helped to reduce the incidence of drunk driving in recent years, but driving under the influence of drugs hasn’t received much attention.
The fact of the matter is that drugged driving has a significant impact on public safety in the U.S.  While car accident deaths have declined in recent years, the incidence of drug-related auto fatalities has risen by %5. A 2009 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) showed that in about one out of every three crashes where the driver was killed, the driver tested positive for drugs. Of those driver fatalities, one in four drivers, or 25%, was less than the age of 25.  Almost half of all driver fatalities who were under the influence of marijuana were under the age of 25.
Driving under the influence of drugs, whether legal or illegal, impairs a driver’s motor skills and ability to react quickly to driving situations.  Drugs can also alter perception and cognition, impairing the driver’s judgment regarding speed and distance. Impairment depends on the type and amount of the drug ingested, as well as the drug habits of the user. Drugged driving puts more than just the driver’s safety at risk – it jeopardizes the safety of their passengers, other drivers and their passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists who share the road.
Illegal DrugsThe effect of drugs on road safety has inspired groups to starting focusing their attention in that direction. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have joined forces in a new effort to campaign against drugged driving. The incidence of poly-abuse, which refers to the combination of drugs and alcohol, is another facet of their effort.
NHTSA administrator David Strickland said of the effort, “We already know the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, and a growing body of research indicates that drugged driving is also a concern—especially for young drivers aged 15-20 who are at particularly high risk for traffic crashes and really need to remain fully alert and focused on driving.”
To increase driving safety, NHTSA has put together educational resources for parents and teens that emphasize the danger of drugged driving among young drivers.  The Drugged Driving Kit is a toolkit aimed at raising public awareness about drugged driving through education and peer advocacy.  It gives teens tips to reject peer pressure to drive under the influence of drugs and remain ‘Above the Influence’ while behind the wheel.  The toolkit can be downloaded at
Another effort of the anti-drugged driving campaign is to increase penalties for the offense.  Part of the reason drugged driving laws have lagged behind those of drunk driving is the difficulty of detecting drug levels by police.  While testing for blood alcohol levels has become routine, there is no blood level standard to determine drug impairment.  Also, some drugs stay in the body for a long period of time after impairment has ceased, which makes it trickier to ascertain.
The most common illegal drug detected in driver and passenger fatalities and injuries is marijuana, but cocaine, opiates, and amphetamines are also routinely detected.  According to Stop Drugged Driving, all 50 states have enacted laws to combat the offense.  Roughly one-third of states use what’s known as the ‘per se standard’ which allows that any amount of a controlled substance constitutes a drugged driving offense, unless the drug is taken by prescription. Using the per se standard is easier than trying to prove that a certain amount of an illicit drug caused a driving impairment. The per se law has been in effect for commercial drivers in the U.S. for more than 25 years and is also used commonly throughout Canada and Western Europe.