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The Dangers Of Drugged Driving

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 20, 2019

Driving under the influence of drugs is just as dangerous, if not more so, as driving under the influence of alcohol. For the safety of everyone involved, it is important to know the dangers of drugged driving and recognize the signs of someone who may be under the influence of harmful substances.

What Is Drugged Driving?

We’ve heard of drunk driving. It’s understood that operating a vehicle when a person has consumed alcohol can be dangerous in many ways. But driving under the influence of drugs, while not as prevalent as with alcohol, is equally hazardous, not just to the driver but also to passengers, other drivers, and the public at large.

Drugs impair the functions necessary to properly and safely operate a vehicle. When a person drives drugged, necessary abilities such as the following can be compromised:

  • Attention span
  • Reaction time
  • Cognitive ability, such as judging distances
  • Physical function/motor skills
  • Coordination

Driving a vehicle requires using all these abilities at the same time. When one or more is affected by the use of a drug, the results can be disastrous.

How Do Drugs Act Or Impair Driving Abilities?

Different drugs affect our abilities in different ways. All affect the abilities listed above. Some have more specific, added effects:

  • Marijuana – Confusion, impaired sensory perception
  • Amphetamines/stimulants – Aggression, impulsiveness, riskiness, fatigue as it wears off
  • Ecstasy – Aggression, riskiness, fatigue – particularly after losing sleep while on the drug, which makes it dangerous to drive even after it wears off
  • Opiates (including heroin, codeine, etc.) – Extremely slow reaction, confusion, fatigue, distracting physical conditions such as itching and nausea

Even mixing over-the-counter and prescription drugs may affect driving ability in similar or additional ways.

Drugs often stay in the system longer than alcohol, sometimes as long as 12 hours or more, so there usually is no set, measurable “safe period” for coming down off the drug before driving.

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Mixing Drugs And Alcohol

The danger of mixing drugs and alcohol can’t be stressed enough. The combining of substances that both strongly impair driving ability almost guarantees disaster. It can be impossible to predict how the combination will affect the driver. Even combining alcohol with prescription drugs can cause side effects that might not normally present themselves in a person on medication. For instance, alcohol can combine with some medications and bring on aggression, causing a person to drive recklessly.

There’s just no way to tell how taking alcohol together with drugs will affect a person. It’s a safe assumption the results would be very negative, to say the least. It’s not worth the risk to try to guess whether or not you’ll be okay to drive when you’ve ingested both drugs (including medications) and alcohol. Just as when either drugged or inebriated, the only safe option, in this case, is to stay off the roads.

Prevalence Of Drugged Driving In The US

Many studies have been done on just how much drugged driving is being done on the roads of the United States. Studies have shown that the percentage of people driving drugged ebbs and flows over time. A study was done by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2013 estimated that approximately 9.9 million people aged 12 or older (or 3.8 percent of adolescents and adults) admitted to having driven drugged. You can compare that with an estimated 28.7 million persons (10.9 percent) who admitted to having driven drunk.

Though the comparison shows that fewer people drive drugged than drive under the influence of alcohol, the numbers are still staggering. 9.9 million people on the road with impaired driving abilities is nothing to pass off as trivial. On the contrary, it provides a significant, added danger to the potential hazards that naturally come with normal driving in and of itself.

Percentage Of Drugged Driving Varies In Age

Out of that 3.8 percent of people 12 or older who admitted to having driven drugged, the highest percentage per age group occurs between ages 18 and 25. In a survey, high school students admitted to more tendency to drive after smoking marijuana than after drinking alcohol by about 2.3 percent. This may contribute to another survey result showing a larger percentage of drugged drivers on weekends versus weeknights. Results have also suggested that the prevalence of drugged driving is higher in men than in women.

What Is Being Done To Combat Drugged Driving

In 2010, the White House commissioned a National Drug Control Strategy (NDCS). Their aim was to reduce drugged driving 10 percent by 2015. Their methods focused on:

  • Educating the public
  • Reforming legal implications
  • Improving testing and reporting methods
  • Training law enforcement in recognizing drugged drivers

Results are still pending at this time.

Beginning in 2010, December was declared National Impaired Driving Prevention Month in an effort to raise awareness of problems such as drugged driving. December is the busiest, and often the most dangerous month for driving. People are urged to be aware of and plan for increased intoxication and drug use due to the holiday season. Groups and organizations make information and resources available to promote and take part in efforts to improve driving safety during this time. This includes education, hot-lines, alternative celebrations, and even free ride services in some areas.

By far, the strongest weapon in decreasing and hopefully eliminating the problem of drugged driving is increasing public awareness. Sharing information and education go far toward alerting the public to this sometimes overlooked problem. The more you know about it, the more you can do to keep yourself and those you care for safe.

You can find information through sources such as the internet, where you can find copies of governmental survey results and other authoritative information. There are also discussion forums to take part in, blogs and articles to read, and resources for local information.

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