When someone mentions driving under the influence, most people automatically think of alcohol, but drugged driving is an equally serious issue that demands more attention. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2007 National Roadside Survey, more than 16 percent of weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter medications. That means more than one out of ten drivers was operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs. Even more alarming, that could be a conservative estimate. Some studies report that anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of fatal driving accidents involve drugged driving. Part of the problem is awareness. Since the primary focus has been on alcohol, it is easy to forget that other substances can affect us just as much, if not more so, and have equally disastrous consequences.
Marijuana is the most commonly detected drug in impaired drivers. One reason for this could be that some people wrongly assume marijuana is safer than alcohol. Marijuana, however, impairs motor skills, reaction time, and judgment, all of which are critical elements of safe driving. Drowsiness, paranoia, distorted perceptions, and an inability to concentrate can also be factors. Some reports assert that driving after smoking a joint is akin to getting behind the wheel after consuming four beers. That does not even factor in that a large segment of drivers mix marijuana with alcohol, which would certainly increase the level of impairment. One study found that 49.4 percent of drivers who tested positive for drugs had tested positive for marijuana, and, of those, 26.9 percent were seriously injured drivers.
Stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamines, are also commonly detected in drugged drivers. By and large, cocaine is more frequently found in the systems of drugged drivers than amphetamines, but both these drugs can distort the way you perceive lights, sound, and other critical elements to safe driving. While these drugs heighten alertness and confidence, those feelings can quickly become something far less pleasant. Stimulants can wear off quickly and without warning, which can lead to intense drowsiness and falling asleep at the wheel. Likewise, confidence can quickly evolve into aggression, which sets the stage for reckless driving, road rage, and the violent incidents associated with those events. Regardless of which substance you use, if it is illegal, you could face criminal prosecution not just for driving under the influence, but possession as well.
It is not just illicit drugs one has to worry about, either. Prescription medication and over-the-counter medication can easily hinder a person’s ability to operate a vehicle. We often take these medications without thinking and with the best of intentions, but we need to be more vigilant about our behavior before we get behind the wheel. Anti-anxiety medications, tranquilizers, painkillers, antihistamines, and cold medicine can slow reaction times and cause drowsiness. If you are ever taking a medication with a warning label about operating a vehicle or heavy machinery, you should not drive. Similarly, if you are taking an over-the-counter medication that lists drowsiness as one of its effects, you should pass the keys to someone else. You should also keep in mind that if you combine these medications with alcohol, you could severely compromise your ability to function in a variety of ways including driving.
Drunk and drugged driving is equally problematic, but the emphasis has generally been on alcohol. Drugged driving is not as easily detectable by law enforcement, but it can still lead to criminal penalties, injury, and even death. Also, unlike alcohol, drugged driving can be unintentional if you took medication to address a health issue. Before you turn your key in the ignition, you should take a moment to reflect on everything you have put in your body that could impair your driving, not just alcohol. After all, when we drive, we are responsible not only for our own safety but also for the safety of others. The repercussions of a moment under the influence can last a lifetime.