Impaired driving is responsible for over 10,000 fatalities every year. Whether the impairment is caused by prescription medication, illicit drugs, alcohol or cognitive impairment, the results are the same. These injuries and deaths were preventable with education, planning and responsible driver behavior.
Recognizing the drunk driver
Motorists should never take the law into their own hands or engage with those driving erratically. If a fellow motorist exhibits these signs, impaired driving may be occurring. To seek law enforcement assistance, make mental notes of the location of the vehicle, model and color and, if possible, license plate number. Pull to a safe place and call 911 to alert officers. Here are a few signs that a fellow motorist may be driving while impaired:
A Word About Ignition Interlock Devices
What you need to know about medication and driving
If you’re taking a medication, is it safe to drive? While most medications do not impact your ability to operate a vehicle safely, it’s important to understand how a medication you take could impact your ability to operate a vehicle safely, including a car, boat, bus, plane or watercraft.
Some prescription and non-prescription medications (also called over-the-counter or OTC) can have side effects and cause reactions that may make it unsafe to drive. Side effects can include:
Some medications can affect your driving for a short time after you take them. For others, the effects can last for several hours, and even the next day. If a medication has a warning to not operate heavy machinery, this includes driving a car.
Medications That May Affect Driving
Older people face greater risk
Timing is important
Knowing how your medications—or any combination of them—affect your ability to drive is a safety measure. Read the Drug Facts label of your prescription or OTC medication and ask your pharmacist or doctor about side effects. Understand the warnings before operating any vehicle.
Some drugs that could make it dangerous to drive include:
Also, taking cannabidiol (CBD) products and driving can be dangerous. CBD can cause sleepiness, sedation and lethargy. Because of these side effects, consumers should use caution if planning on operating a motor vehicle after consuming any CBD products.
A Word of Warning About Combining Medications
Combining two or more drugs, including alcohol, may result in a synergistic effect. This means that the combined effect is even greater than the sum of the two effects separately.
Synergism is not a rare occurrence. For example, a beer and another depressant may amplify sedative effects. Drinking alcohol or taking sleep medications while using certain antihistamines can increase the sedative effects. Anytime another drug is combined with alcohol, the effects may be different from those expected if either drug is taken alone.
How many people take drugs and drive?
According to a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 20.5 million people aged 16 or older drove under the influence of alcohol within the past year and 12.6 million drove under the influence of illicit drugs. The survey also showed that men are more likely than women to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Which drugs are linked to drugged driving?
After alcohol, cannabis is the drug most often found in the blood of drivers involved in crashes. Moreover, the vehicle crash risk associated with cannabis is greater when it is used in combination with alcohol, cocaine or benzodiazepines than when it is used alone.
Along with cannabis, prescription drugs are also commonly linked to drugged driving crashes. In 2016, 19.7 percent of drivers who drove while under the influence tested positive for some type of opioid.
How often does drugged driving cause crashes?
The number of crashes that can be attributed to the use of either illicit or prescription drugs is difficult to measure. Unlike roadside tests for alcohol impairment, there are no reliable roadside tests for drug levels that are able to measure impairment. However, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 43.6 percent of fatally injured drivers in 2016 tested positive for drugs and over half of those drivers were positive for two or more drugs.
Because of the lack of reliable roadside testing for drug impairment, it’s more common for law enforcement to test for blood alcohol level if it is suspected that there’s sufficient evidence for a DUI charge without consideration of drug-induced impairment. Many drivers who cause crashes are using combinations of drugs and alcohol.
Drug Recognition Expert
A drug recognition expert or drug recognition evaluator (DRE) is a police officer specially trained to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) coordinates the International Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program with support from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation. In addition to officers who are certified as DREs, the DEC Program educates prosecutors and toxicologists on the DRE process and the drug categories.
A DRE conducts a detailed, diagnostic examination of persons arrested or suspected of drug-impaired driving or similar offenses. The DRE drug evaluation takes approximately one hour to complete and is conducted in a controlled environment, rather than roadside. The evaluation is typically conducted post-arrest. Based on the results of the drug evaluation, the DRE forms an expert opinion on the level and cause of the impairment.
The use of cannabis / marijuana affects psychomotor skills and cognitive functions critical to driving, including vigilance, drowsiness, time and distance perception, reaction time, divided attention, lane tracking, coordination and balance.
There are many misconceptions about cannabis use, including rumors that cannabis can’t impair you or that cannabis use can actually make you a safer driver. However, several scientific studies have shown this to be false. Cannabis impairs motor skills, lane tracking and cognitive functions (Robbe et al., 1993; Moskowitz, 1995; Hartman & Huestis, 2013. The THC in cannabis also hurts a driver’s ability to multitask, a critical skill needed behind the wheel.
There is no device in existence to measure a person’s impairment due to cannabis. Additionally, even if there were, cannabis does not leave the body at a predictable rate nor does it do so in direct correlation with the degree of impairment. Some states that have legalized recreational cannabis use have established a per se limit similar to the one for alcohol , but those limits have been found to have no correlation to determining impairment. In other states, a person can be found guilty of DUI if there are traces of cannabis present, even days or weeks after the impairment has ended.
NHTSA continues to conduct research to better understand the relationship between cannabis impairment and increased crash risk. NHTSA’s Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk Study found that cannabis users are more likely to be involved in crashes. However, the increased risk may be due in part because cannabis users are more likely to be young men, who are generally at a higher risk of crashes.
Learn more about the studies on cannabis and driving conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety:
What steps can you take to prevent impaired driving due to drugs or alcohol?
Bottom line? Driving impaired by any substance—alcohol or other drugs, whether legal or illegal—is against the law in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Law enforcement officers are trained to observe drivers’ behavior and to identify impaired drivers.
NHTSA’s National Roadside Survey conducted in 2013-2014 (PDF, 173 KB) found that 20 percent of surveyed drivers tested positive for potentially impairing drugs.
We can all save lives by making smarter choices.
Feeling sleepy is especially dangerous when you are driving. Sleepiness slows your reaction time, decreases awareness and impairs your judgment, just like drugs or alcohol. People who are very sleepy behave in similar ways to people who are drunk. The impact that this has on traffic safety should not be underestimated.
Symptoms of sleepiness include but are not limited to:
Daylight Saving Time Increase Risk
To remain alert and avoid drowsiness, AAA suggests: