Drugged Driving: A Growing and Often Overlooked Problem

By Mark Rosekind

Drugs that may impair safe driving were found in one out of every seven weekend nighttime drivers in California according to a survey released this week by the California Office of Traffic Safety. It showed that nearly double the number of drivers tested positive for drugs (14 percent) than alcohol (7.3 percent). The results also indicate that many of those drivers who tested positive for alcohol also tested positive for drugs.

Operating a vehicle while drug-impaired is a serious, growing, and often under-reported problem – so deadly that the NTSB has again placed substance impaired driving on its annual Most Wanted List highlighting the most critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. It was released on November 14th.

Over 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths in America occur on our highways where more people die than in any other mode of transportation. The substance-impaired driver is a big contributor to this grim statistic. Alcohol-intoxicated driving causes more than 10,000 deaths every year. But according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, one-third of drivers fatally injured in 2009 that were tested for drugs and for whom results were known, tested positive. From 2005-2009, the proportion of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for illicit drugs rose from 13 to 18 percent. The California Office of Highway Safety’s data confirms that the fight against substance impaired driving remains a deadly challenge.

The loss of just one life due to substance impairment is one life too many. In 2002, a 27 year-old child-care bus driver used marijuana shortly before assuming his responsibilities to drive six children to school in Memphis, Tennessee. A witness reported that the child-care van drifted off the highway at full speed, overrode the guardrail, and collided with a light pole. Four of the children were killed, two were seriously injured, and the driver also died. At the time of the crash, he was under the influence of the drug, contributing to the cause of this needless tragedy.

Marijuana affects the central nervous system, decreasing dynamic visual acuity, reducing eye-hand and hand-hand coordination, increasing reaction times, causing incorrect reactions, resulting in incorrect estimates of time and distance, and increasing brake time. Any one of these would reduce a person’s ability to drive safely.

California’s federally funded survey is the first of its kind ever undertaken by a state to supply the critical information needed to develop action plans for addressing the problem. Eliminating substance-impaired driving requires a comprehensive solution, starting with basic concepts for changing behavior and fostering deterrence. It includes such measures as high visibility enforcement, license revocation, fines, and jail. But in cases where the impaired driver has a substance-abuse problem, neither fines nor incarceration addresses the root cause of recidivism. Successful programs should include assessment for substance abuse and treatment when warranted. Alternatives to jail, such as home detention with electronic monitoring or intensive supervision probation, allow offenders to maintain employment and obtain treatment while still holding them accountable for the underlying crime. Technology also holds great promise to test drivers quickly and effectively for drugs.

The key is to establish and use a comprehensive set of tools and tailor programs to the specific offender’s situation. With more information like the California Office of Traffic Safety’s survey and an effective menu of strategies, together we can work toward the goal of zero highway deaths due to substance impaired driving.

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