The use of marijuana and mood-altering prescription drugs is increasing among drivers in the U.S. While it’s illegal in the United States to drive while drunk (with blood alcohol concentrations [BACs] of .08 or higher), the laws involving drugged driving vary across states.
Use of psychoactive drugs have similar, and perhaps even worse, effects and outcomes than driving after drinking alcohol. Drugged driving places the driver, passengers, as well as other drivers and pedestrians at risk for death or serious injury. In 2015, the most recent year for which most data are available, the NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) showed that psychoactive drugs were present in 43% of the fatalities in which the driver’s level of impairment or consumption was known via drug and alcohol testing. Impairment from drugs other than alcohol were more frequently cited in the FARS data (2016). An estimated 35,200 people died in 2015, up from the 32,675 reported fatalities in 2014, which is a 7.7 percent increase in motor vehicle traffic deaths in one year.
Marijuana use is rampant across the U.S. and increasing in nearly every age cohort.
As of April 2017, marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes in 29 states and the District of Columbia. The most recent state to do so is West Virginia, which legalized medical marijuana in April 2017, and it will become the law of the land in July 2019.
Recreational use of marijuana is currently allowed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. In addition, 13 other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it essentially legal to use.
In 2015, Congress identified impaired driving from drugs other than alcohol as a priority in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
This bill directed NHTSA to develop new education programs that will increase public awareness about the dangers associated with drugged driving. The Act also requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to study the relationship between marijuana use and driving impairment as well as develop new methods to detect marijuana impairment among drivers. Certainly, the technology to measure acute impairment in long-acting drugs like marijuana is a challenge, but it is necessary on many fronts. And the right kind education may have an impact.
Why Does This Matter?
The recent data on distracted driving (texting, cell phone use, or navigation) has declined steadily since 2007. Highlighting the fatalities due to texting while driving has caused parents to make a concerted effort to crack down on their kids. Law enforcement giving hefty financial fines when catching distracted driver is associated with the decline. However, the percent of U.S. adults who consider marijuana a risky or harmful drug is declining rapidly. As a result, the use of cannabis among all age groups is increasing. Attitudes about the potential harm associated with using a drug are predictive of mortality and morbidity.
Lastly, several small studies of aircraft pilots demonstrated that impairment from cannabis persists at least 24 hours after the subjective feelings of intoxication are gone. If one doesn’t feel impaired, they are more likely to drive and thus more likely to be involved in a serious or fatal accident.