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AASHTO Journal

GHSA Report Finds ‘Drugged Driving’ Becoming a Bigger Problem

new report compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association finds that "drugged driving" is becoming a more pervasive problem on American's roadways, with 44 percent of fatally-injured drivers with known results testing positive for drugs in 2016, up from 28 percent just 10 years prior. On top of that, more than half of those "drugged drivers" had marijuana, opioids, or a combination of the two in their system.

Funded by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, this new report – entitled Drug-Impaired Driving: Marijuana and Opioids Raise Critical Issues for States – found that among drug-positive fatally-injured drivers in 2016, 38 percent tested positive for some form of marijuana, 16 percent tested positive for opioids, and 4 percent tested positive for both marijuana and opioids.

While alcohol-impaired driving remains a larger traffic safety threat – drunk-driving crashes claim more than 10,000 lives annually at a cost of $44 billion per year, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration – the presence of alcohol in fatally-injured drivers is slightly lower than it was a decade ago, GHSA noted; decreasing from 41 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2016.

060118road.jpgWhile the group said some of the strategies used to address alcohol-impaired driving can also be employed to deter drug-impaired driving, drug impairment presents "several unique challenges."

For example, GHSA stressed that there is no nationally-accepted method for testing driver drug impairment. There are also an "unwieldy" number of drugs to test for and different drugs have different impairing effects in different drivers, noted Jim Hedlund, the report's author and a former senior NHTSA official.

"Drugs can impair, and drug-impaired drivers can crash," he said in the report. "But it's impossible to understand the full scope of the drugged driving problem because many drivers who are arrested or involved in crashes, even those who are killed, are not tested for drugs. And drivers who are drug-positive may not necessarily be impaired."

Adding to these concerns is the frequency of so-called "poly-drug" use, or the use of multiple potentially-impairing substances simultaneously. In 2016, 51 percent of drug-positive fatally-injured drivers were found positive for two or more drugs, GHSA's research discerned, with alcohol is often in the mix as well as 49 percent of drivers killed in crashes who tested positive for alcohol in 2016 also tested positive for drugs.

GHSA's report also offers several recommendations for reducing marijuana- and opioid-impaired driving, which include:

  • Closely following the development and testing of new impairment assessment tools, such as oral fluid devices and marijuana breath test instruments;
  • Supporting the drug-impaired driving prosecution process through increased law enforcement training, authorizing electronic search warrants for drug tests, and educating prosecutors and judges on the unique challenges of drugged driving cases;
  • Partnering across the public health, pharmaceutical, and marijuana industries to educate patients and customers about the potential impairing effects of these drugs; and
  • Using public awareness campaigns to change driver attitudes about driving under the influence of marijuana and opioids.

Photo: VDOT

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