Driving Under the Influence of Drugs Leads to More Crashes Than Alcohol
The Dangers of Drugged Driving
Drugs have been responsible for more driver deaths than alcohol, according to a recent analysis of fatal traffic accidents by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In fact, 43% of those who died while driving under the influence (DUI) had used either illegal drugs or prescribed medications, compared to 37% who had used alcohol and exceeded the legal limit.
The dangerous trend in drugged driving is relatively new. Back in 2005, alcohol was found to be the bigger problem. Studies from that year indicate that alcohol intoxication was detected as the cause in 41% of traffic deaths, compared to just 28% for drug impairment.
Drugged Driving: A Hazardous Trend
Marijuana is the drug most often linked to drugged driving, but authorities say it is challenging to measure exactly how many crashes marijuana or drugged driving causes.
Because drugged driving has become such a hazard on U.S. roadways, Congress has directed the NHTSA to raise public awareness of the associated dangers as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST), which is funding high-priority traffic through 2020. Congress has urged highway safety offices in many states to “do something” about drug-impaired driving, but it is not yet clear what can be done.
Many wonder if the legalization of marijuana in many U.S. states has led to a surge in marijuana-related DUI accidents, or if the prescription painkiller epidemic has also been a contributing factor to an increase in drugged driving. The numbers show that an increasing number of Americans are relying on these drugs for both medical and non-medical reasons.
The analysis report from the GHSA lists marijuana as being associated with a “slightly increased” risk of crashing. The report states that cocaine and opioids are associated with a “medium increased risk,” amphetamines a “highly increased risk,” and alcohol in combination with these and other drugs as the highest risk of all.
In an effort to find solutions, FAST began studying the relationship between marijuana use and driving impairment with a goal of identifying effective methods to detect marijuana-impaired drivers.
Another effort was a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs that aims to identify drivers using potentially impairing prescription drugs, both medically and non-medically, and help determine interventions that will reduce medication-impaired driving.
Law enforcement agencies and officers take a hard line on drug-impaired driving, just as they do on drunk driving. They are concerned that people haven’t yet grasped the idea that it isn’t safe to drive after taking hydrocodone, Ambien, or even codeine. To law enforcement officers patrolling our roadways, a DUI is a DUI. Just because you have a legal prescription for the medications you are taking doesn’t mean that you are fit enough, or have the legal right, to operate a motor vehicle when you are under the influence of those drugs.
Interventions and Addiction Treatment Can Help
An over-reliance on drugs, even if their use is for medical reasons, can lead to addiction. Opioid painkillers are a common culprit in the abuse of prescription medications, due to their highly addictive properties.
Physical tolerance to opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin can lead to the need for higher doses to achieve the same level of pain relief. Higher doses, of course, lead to physical addiction. In these scenarios, a person who becomes dependent on their medication may be unaware of the extent of their addiction and its effects, leading them to continue their usual activities while under the influence. They may be unaware that these medications interact negatively with allergy medications and others, exaggerating their sedative effect. Many people also misuse medications by double-dosing or taking more than one prescription at a time, and the combined effects — called a “multiplicative effect” — can render a person more sedated or intoxicated, and very dangerous behind the wheel.
Drug misuse or substance abuse can go unchecked for quite some time. It is sometimes not until addicts are involved in one too many fender benders or other mishaps and start presenting with drug-related behaviors that families become aware of their loved one’s dependency on their medications or other drugs.
The best outcome in these cases is that families recognize there is a problem, step in to intervene and get their loved one into an addiction treatment program that includes medical detoxification and tackles both their physical and psychological drug dependency. The Promises treatment program for prescription painkiller addiction, for example, seeks to restore balance by first detoxing the client from the prescribed drug, then finding new ways to deal with the pain that allows the client to function physically, mentally and emotionally. By switching to non-addictive pain medications and also incorporating alternative therapies like acupuncture, meditation, yoga, Pilates and others, chronic pain can be controlled.
In Fatal Traffic Accidents, More Drivers Are Drugged Than Drunk. Impaired Driving. Narcanon, May 2017.
Report: Tiger fell asleep at wheel, passed breathalyzer. Steve DelVecchio. MSN Sports, May 2017.
Tiger Woods had to be woken up by police. A.J. Perez. USA Today Sports, May 2017.
Tiger Woods blames medications for his arrest on DUI charge. Golf great Tiger Woods arrested on DUI charge. Doug Ferguson. The Associated Press, May 2016.
Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act or "FAST Act."
Drugged Driving. National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, June 2016.
Drug-Impaired Driving. A Guide for States. Governors Highway Safety Association. April 2017.
Prevalence of Self-Reported Prescription Drug Use in a National Sample of U.S. Drivers. T. Kelley-Baker, et al. January 2017.