An epidemic slowly emerging across the nation, is the magnitude of the drugged driving problem we are facing in today’s society. With no widespread, consistent data collection among the states, as there is for drunk driving, we are only beginning to understand the enormity of the issue.

Drugged driving destroys lives, and yet as a choice is a 100% preventable crime. In 2009, 1 in 3 drivers killed in car crashes tested positive for drugs. More than that, an amazing number of people, 31,000,000, drove after drug or alcohol use in 2013.

In a day where we are facing challenges of many new medications being introduced quickly and their effects of driving not yet realized, we operate on a system of trial and error. Other drugs, such as legal medicinal/recreation marijuana are being legalized, and yet legal driving limits have yet to be set or are in conflict with state law.

Another area, in which people are impaired behind the wheel, often without realizing it, is with their prescription medications. Both legal and illegal drugs can impair driving skills, this can include many over-the-counter and prescription medications. Yet, there are another whole set of issues when alcohol is combined with drugs, and the driver gets behind the wheel. This is often termed “poly use.”

Many substances can impair driving skills.

  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Prescription drugs
  • Legal medicinal/recreational marijuana
  • Illicit drugs

drugged driving

What is Drugged Driving? Signs and Symptoms

When someone chooses to get behind the wheel, they understand the legal consequences of their actions. They need to understand how medications affect their ability to drive. According to MADD, drugged driving or substance impaired driving, is the detection of legal or illegal substances that impact driving ability. Poly abuse, of course, is when drugs and alcohol are mixed.

Drugs, no matter their source, affect your driving skills by acting on the central nervous system. According to the New Mexico Drugged Driving Initiative the effects of specific drugs on the brain and nervous system differ depending on how they are used, the amount consumed, the individual user, and much more.

How drugs affect you.

  • Perception – While driving 90% of information processed by our brains is visual. Drug use impairs vision and impedes the ability to drive safely.
  • Attention – By affecting your central nervous system, many drugs can impair your ability to focus and process information.
  • Tracking – Loss of perception also affects your tracking ability, which inhibits your ability to stay in your lane or stay a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you.
  • Judgment – Many drugs have a cognitive effect on the brain, which changes your inhibitions. Your ability to assess risks and avoid potential hazards is inhibited, while your risk-taking behavior is increased.
  • Reaction Time – Drugs alter your brains perception, and slows your response and reaction times.
  • Coordination – Many drugs can have an affect on the nervous and muscular systems. This can make handling your vehicle difficult.

Everyone at some time or another has to take medications. Learning to understand how they affect you before getting behind the wheel is crucial. You put yourself and others at risk when you choose to drive under the influence of drugs. Check yourself, your responses, cognition, and tracking abilities, before getting behind the wheel.

How Many Drugged Drivers Are on the Roads?

drugged driving 2

In 2013 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) stated that an estimated 9.9 million people aged 12 or older reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the prior year. They went on to say that on estimate 28.7 million people reported driving under the influence of alcohol in 2012.

In 2007, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated that one in six weekend nighttime drivers tested positive for illicit drugs, medications, or both.

How Often Does Drugged Driving Cause Accidents?

car accident

There are many reasons why we do not have an accurate number on how often drugged driving causes accidents. Some of the most prominent reasons are:

  • As of yet, there are no roadside tests for drug levels in the body.
  • Most cases of DUI related to alcohol, people are not usually tested for drugs.
  • It is often difficult in cases where multiple drugs are used, to know which substance had the greater effect.

Many drivers involved in accidents are found to have one or more drugs in their system. In 2009 the National Highway Safety Administration found that 18% of drivers killed in accidents were found to have at least one drug in their system.

Which Drugs Are Most Likely to Cause Accidents?

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug linked to drugged driving accidents. The second drug most often linked to drugged driving accidents is marijuana. Drivers are tested for levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana in which levels can be detected.

Marijuana use has been linked to a number of drugged driving accidents. The use of marijuana can be significantly higher at certain times. According to the 2013-2014 National Roadside Survey, marijuana use can be as high as 12.6% of drivers on weekend nights.

The numbers of drivers who test positive for drugs in fatal crashes can be quite high. In 2010 a nationwide study of fatal crashes on positive drug results was conducted. It found that 46.5% of drivers used a prescription drug, 36.9% used marijuana, and 9.8% used cocaine. The most common drugs found were (Wilson, 2010):

  • alprazolam (Xanax®)—12.1 percent
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin®)—11.1 percent
  • oxycodone (OxyContin®)—10.2 percent
  • diazepam (Valium®)—8.4 percent

*Note the study did not distinguish between legal and illicit use of the drugs.

Statistics of Drug Related Accidents


The legalization of medicinal and recreation marijuana has been gaining popularity across the United States. As more and more states legalize the use of this drug, the rise in accidents involving its use has also occurred. According to researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the number of fatal crashes involving marijuana use has tripled over the last ten years.

According to Dr. Guohua Li, director of Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, one in nine drivers would test positive marijuana that was involved in a fatal crash. Dr. Li predicts that if the current trends continue, drugs will overtake alcohol as the most common substance known to cause accidents and death on the roads.

Drugged Driving Numbers

  • Approximately 4000 drivers die in car crashes with drugs in their systems. This does not include the number of drivers killed by drugged drivers.
  • 57% of those drivers, who were fatally injured, were tested and found positive for either alcohol or drugs.
  • About 7% of drivers under age 35, who were involved in fatal car accidents, tested positive for THC.
  • Of drivers under the age of 35, who were fatally injured, 21% had alcohol levels above the legal limit.
  • 9 million people in the U.S. reported driving under the influence in 2013.

Law Enforcement

drive high get a duiAnytime someone chooses to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are putting everyone on the road at risk. Our best allies in reducing drugged driving on our roads are law enforcement officers. Using high-visibility tactics, like sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, are some of the best ways to deter and catch drugged drivers.

There are many types of drugs being used, both legal and illicit by drivers, and it takes specialized training by officers to discern and detect levels of impairment. Currently, all 50 states participate in a training program called the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC). The program was designed to help officers identify drug-impaired drivers and is a creative collaboration between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

When an officer joins the DEC program he educates himself through a three phase training curriculum to become a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). A DRE learns to evaluate drivers based on a standardized 12-step evaluation. The evaluation has physical, mental, and medical components.

The 12 Step DRE Evaluations

  • To rule out intoxication, the officer performs a Beath Alcohol Test (BrAC).
  • To determine what behaviors, statements, or presence of drugs or paraphernalia, has led the officer to suspect impairment, the officer is first interviewed.
  • To ensure there is not a medical condition causing the symptoms, the suspect is asked a series of health questions. A preliminary exam is conducted checking pulse, pupil size and reaction, tracking ability, and for physical signs of impairment. If a medical condition is not determined, the evaluation continues.
  • The Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) evaluates the eyes. Using his finger, he looks for the ability to cross the eyes on the bridge of the nose, as well as the ability to track objects horizontally and vertically.
  • Four test to determine if attention and motor skills are impaired. These tests are: Walk and Turn, Finger to Nose, Romberg Balance and the One Leg Stand Test.
  • At this point in the 12 point evaluation vitals of the suspect are taken. Blood pressure, pulse, and body temperature, as any abnormality can be an indication of drug impairment. The pulse is taken for the second time in this step and is compared to the results are compared to the first time the pulse was taken.
  • The eyes are then tested under three different lighting conditions using a pupilometer. The pupil’s dilation and reaction to light are evaluated. Not only can this indicate drug use, but can also narrow down the drug category. A complete examination of the nose and mouth is also done at this time.
  • Some drugs, when abused, can cause differing levels of muscle flaccidity or rigidity, because of this skeletal muscle tone is evaluated for signs of drug use.
  • While checking muscle tone, the DRE also searches for evidence of needle marks, or indications of injection drug abuse by looking for injection sites on the body. The suspects pulse is taken a third time and compared to previous results.
  • At this point the DRE may ask further questions regarding drug use, or your Miranda rights may be read.
  • The Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) then goes over his observations, and based on his trained makes a determination on drug impairment.
  • If a DRE decided that drugs are the cause of impairment, then the driver is subject to testing, which can be ordered by blood, urine, or a saliva test.

Driving under the influence of drugs can land you in the morgue, hospital or jail. The penalties for a DUI in any state are swift and severe. There is no getting away with it, as DRE officers are experts in detection. In order to become an official Drug Recognition Expert, officers must be able to successfully detect impairments at least 75% of the time.

Prevention is key to keeping our roads safe. Avoid driving while impaired, and do not ride with anyone who is under the influence of drugs.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugged Driving. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. Black Bear Lodge. The Dangers of Drug Addiction – Drugged Driving. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. WebMD. Fatal Car Crashes Involving Pot Use Have Tripled in U.S., Study Finds. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugged Driving. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. Colorado Department of Transportation. Drugged Driving. Retrieved from on January 20, 2106.
  1. Governor’s Highway Association. Drug Impaired Driving Laws. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. MADD No More Victims. Drugged Driving By the Numbers. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. MADD No More Victims. What is “Drugged” Driving? Retrieved from on January 20, 2016
  1. Don’t Drive Drugged. The New Mexico Drugged Driving Initiative. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. Don’t Drive Drugged. The New Mexico Drugged Driving Initiative. Retrieved from on January 20, 2016.
  1. Driving Laws. Virginia’s Drugged Driving Law. Retrieved from on January 21, 2016.
  1. The International Drug Evaluation & Classification Program. The DRE Protocol. Retrieved from on January 21, 2016.