Drunk Driving Steadily Decreasing, but Drugged Driving a Concern
However, for the first time, the survey also looked at drug use on weekend nights and found that 16.3 percent of drivers had drugs in their system, mostly marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. The survey’s authors cautioned that it was difficult to tell whether the drivers were currently impaired because traces of drugs like marijuana can be found weeks after a chronic user has stopped using the drug.
"Even though the alcohol numbers are the good news, we're still seeing over 10,000 fatalities a year involving a legally impaired driver or motorcyclist. So we still have work to do," says Rae Tyson, an NHTSA spokesman. "On drugs, the numbers are fairly high and representative of drug use in society, but what it says about the impairment of the person behind the wheel remains to be seen.”
Law-enforcement officials have for years encountered drivers who seemed to be impaired but did not test positive for alcohol. This prompted NHTSA to start researching how drugs can affect an individual’s driving safety. One issue that still needs to be resolved is how to test for—and find a safe driving threshold for—drugs that can stay in a person’s system for days or even weeks.
"We know what that threshold is for alcohol, and states have universally set 0.08 blood alcohol content as the limit," says Tyson. "We still have a lot of research to do and a lot to learn in terms of what impact drugs have on your system and at what point a driver is too impaired by drugs to be behind the wheel."
For advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the survey results on drunk driving are encouraging. "Most of the credit needs to go to the law-enforcement community for stepping up and ... doing sobriety checkpoints and getting the drunks off the roads," says J.T. Griffin, vice president for public policy for MADD, which is based in the Dallas area. "But we still have a long ways to go."
Griffin says that MADD has "major concerns" about the number of people driving under the influence of drugs, but that the group will keep its focus on drunken driving.
"For a lot of these folks, the drugs and alcohol use go together,” says Griffin. “So if you can still focus on the alcohol piece, in a lot of cases you'll catch the drug-impaired drivers as well.”