Most drivers know that the consequences for driving drunk can be severe -- and that the results can be devastating. Yet there are other substances besides alcohol that make driving dangerous.
Although not as widely discussed as drunk driving, "drugged driving" can have the same disastrous effects.
What is drugged driving?
Drugged driving is defined as driving while under the influence of drugs that can impair your judgment, whether those drugs are illegal, over-the-counter or prescription. The most common drugs found in the drivers of fatal car accidents are marijuana and stimulants (such as meth and cocaine), according to a July 2011 study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 63 percent of those killed in crashes in 2009 were tested for drugs. Of those tested, 18 percent tested positive for a variety of drugs, including illegal, prescription and over-the-counter drugs. PIRE researchers placed that percentage as high as 25 percent, based on their own investigation.
NHTSA points out that there's no way to tell whether the drugs were the sole cause of the accidents. Yet it warns all drivers taking drugs that may impair their driving abilities to "put common sense and caution to the forefront, and give your keys to someone else."
What are the effects of drugged driving?
Research into drugged driving is not as prevalent as that into drunken driving. Yet PIRE concluded that certain substances often go hand-in-hand with risky behaviors. According to its study, marijuana use is associated with an increase in violations like speeding and not wearing a seat belt. Stimulants, meanwhile, were found to be particularly dangerous and to be associated with a slew of violations, from speeding to inattention.
What can be done about drugged driving?
Blood-alcohol content can easily be measured by breathalyzer tests -- and a nationwide limit of 0.08 gives law enforcement a clear benchmark for measuring whether someone is too drunk to drive. Drugged driving, however, is harder to pinpoint as well as prosecute.
Different drugs have different effects on the body, PIRE points out, making a uniform "legal limit" difficult to define. Testing for drugs also is less straightforward, as some drugs (like marijuana) can linger in the body for weeks. As of August 2011, just 19 states forbid drivers to operate a vehicle with prohibited drugs in their systems, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, while every state has anti-drunken driving laws.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently launched an initiative designed to reduce drugged driving in the United States by 10 percent by 2015. The initiative's goals are to increase awareness of drugged driving, provide training to law enforcement, encourage states to adopt harsher drugged driving laws and establish a standard set of screening procedures.