Although the nationwide effort to raise awareness about the dangers of drunk driving have been fruitful, two recent studies show that there is a troubling escalation in the use of marijuana and prescription drugs behind the wheel that could jeopardize the progress to make roads safer. The ground-breaking studies were recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The first study, which is the latest version of NHTSA’s Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers, found that the number of drivers with alcohol in their system has declined by nearly one-third since 2007 and by more than three-quarters since 1973. However, figures also revealed that the number of drivers using marijuana or other illegal drugs jumped to almost one in four drivers who test positive for at least one drug that could affect road safety. According to the data, the number of weekend nighttime drivers with evidence of drugs in their system climbed from 16.3 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2014, while the number of drivers with marijuana in their system grew by nearly 50 percent.
The study, which has been conducted five times in the last 40 years, gathers data from anonymous voluntary participants throughout the U.S.
The second NHTSA survey, which is the largest of its kind ever conducted, assessed whether driver use of marijuana is tied to greater risk of crashes. The study not only found that marijuana users are more likely to be involved in accidents, but revealed that this increased risk may partially be attributed to the demographics of marijuana users—in particular young men—who are more likely to be part of a group that is at higher risk of crashes overall.
The study also found that drivers who had been drinking above the 0.08 percent legal limit had about 4 times the risk of crashing as sober drivers, and those with blood alcohol levels at 0.15 percent or higher had 12 times the risk.
Conducted in Virginia Beach, Va., the study gathered data over a 20-month period from more than 3,000 drivers who were involved in crashes, in addition to a comparison group of 6,000 drivers who did not crash.
Results from the NHTSA surveys are consistent with a June study by Public Health Reports, a recent article in Claims Journal pointed out. This study, which was funded by Public Health Law Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that the profile of a ‘drugged driver’ has changed considerably since 1993. Not only are more drivers testing positive for prescription drugs, cannabis, and multiple drugs, they are increasingly likely to be older than 50. The study noted almost 60 percent of marijuana-only users were younger than 30 years old, but 39 percent of prescription drug users were 50 years old or older.
“America made drunk driving a national issue and while there is no victory as long as a single American dies in an alcohol-related crash, a one-third reduction in alcohol use over just seven years shows how a focused effort and cooperation among the federal government, states and communities, law enforcement, safety advocates and industry can make an enormous difference,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “At the same time, the latest Roadside Survey raises significant questions about drug use and highway safety. The rising prevalence of marijuana and other drugs is a challenge to everyone who is dedicated to saving lives and reducing crashes.”
A series of additional studies to further understand the risk of drugged driving is being planned by the NHTSA, including the Washington State Roadside Survey, which will assess risk in a state where marijuana has recently been legalized, and a simulator study with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to assess how drivers under the influence of drugs behave behind the wheel.