Impaired driving continues to be a problem on American roads. According to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), while the number of drunk drivers on the road has decreased, the number of drivers using marijuana and other illegal drugs has increased.
Though experts have been gathering information on how alcohol affects driving for many years, we know less about how marijuana and similar drugs affect driving capabilities. The NHTSA noted that this most recent survey was the second to collect data on drug use, and the first to examine drug use trends on a national scale.
Drunk Driving Decreasing
The NHTSA has been conducting national surveys since 1994 on drinking and driving in the United States. The most recent of these was conducted between 2013 and 2014, and used a random sample of drivers in the contiguous 48 states. Researchers collect data from 300 roadside sites across the country, where road signs alert drivers to the presence of a voluntary paid survey. Participants remain anonymous.
The last survey before this one, conducted in 2007, was the first to collect data on the use of potentially impairing drugs as well as alcohol.
Overall, the surveys showed that the use of alcohol by drivers has decreased. More specifically, the proportion of drivers with measurable levels of alcohol declined by about 30 percent between the 2007 and 2014 surveys. Comparing results from the 1973 survey, the prevalence of alcohol among drivers declined by nearly 80 percent.
In 2014, about 1.5 percent of weekend nighttime drivers had .08 or higher breath alcohol concentrations.
Despite the improvements, the NHTSA warns that drivers with an alcohol level of 0.15 or more were 12 times more likely to crash than sober drivers.
Drugged Driving Increasing
While the surveys showed good news concerning drunk driving, the same couldn’t be said of so-called “drugged driving.” The NHTSA found that about 20 percent of drivers tested positive for at least one drug in 2014, up from 16.3 percent in 2007. They included over-the-counter medications, prescriptions, and illegal drugs, as all of these can cause side effects that impair driving.
Participants in the voluntary survey gave both oral and blood samples to be analyzed. About 12.6 percent had been using marijuana, which was also up from 8.6 percent in 2007. More than 15 percent tested positive for at least one illegal drug in 2014, over 12 percent in 2007. Marijuana was the most common illegal drug found in the survey.
The NHTSA added that marijuana users were about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers who didn’t use marijuana.
Other drugs that could potentially impair drivers in the survey included stimulants, sedatives, antidepressants, and narcotic analgesics. The NHTSA pointed out, however, that the presence of a drug in the tests did not indicate impairment.
Report Raises Concerns About National Safety
The NHTSA also noted in a press release that while drunk driving has become a national issue—with cooperation among federal government, states and communities, and law enforcement making a big difference in safety—there has been no such support for a national program on drugged driving.
“The rising prevalence of marijuana and other drugs is a challenge to everyone who is dedicated to saving lives and reducing crashes,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.
The administration plans additional studies on drugged driving, to further examine how illegal substances can affect a driver’s behavior. Previous studies have already shown that marijuana impairs judgment, reaction times, and awareness. Meanwhile, they recommend that since more drivers are behind the wheel with drugs in their systems, the nation respond by increasing its knowledge and establishing programs that can raise awareness of the dangers.
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