Positive drug tests were more common than the presence of alcohol among the fatally injured drivers who were tested in 2015, according to the report
(PDF) “Drug-impaired Driving,” released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, a nonprofit funded by alcohol distillers.
Of those tested, 43% of motorists who died had drugs in their system, the report said. This number surpassed the 37% of motorists who died who tested positive for alcohol in the same year.
“Data in the report showed that for the first time, there are more dead drivers for which we have test results that are positive for drugs than there are who were positive for alcohol,” said James Hedlund, an independent safety expert with Highway Safety North in Ithaca, New York. The new report adds to earlier research conducted by Hedlund that addressed behavioral highway safety issues, including drug-impaired driving.
Drug impairment is a complicated topic
Driving while impaired is illegal in all 50 states. However, laws and interpretations vary about the definition of drug impairment. Testing practices can also vary amongst states, and there are no uniform laws to determine how often testing is used and what drugs are screened for.
Of the more than 400 drugs that the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tracks, marijuana accounted for 35% of positive tests reported, the new research said. Although usage laws vary — marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, and laws permit recreational use in eight states and DC — driving while impaired at any level is illegal anywhere in the United States.
Amphetamines accounted for 9% of substances detected, and more than half of the positive tests in the report were caused by “other drugs.” These figures reveal the wide range of known and unknown substances that can contribute to drug impairment.
Alcohol: ‘Our biggest highway safety problem’
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is skeptical of the report’s findings and said alcohol remains the bigger concern.
“There’s no question that alcohol remains our biggest highway safety problem,” Rader said.
Although the impact of alcohol has been studied for decades, drug impairment and driving has only recently been studied, he said, and the current evidence is weak.
The report cautions that these data do not paint the whole picture. The authors note that only 57% of drivers who were killed in car accidents were tested for drugs. That figure, critics say, is reason enough to be wary of taking this conclusion too seriously.
“There are a couple of problems with drawing the conclusion that drugged driving is now somehow a bigger problem with alcohol,” Rader said. “For one, there isn’t very consistent testing for drivers who are killed in crashes with regard to drugs.”
He’s concerned that the new report could detract from efforts to curb alcohol-impaired driving and shift funding instead toward driving under the influence of drugs. Nobody knows how to address the problem of drug-impaired drivers, he said.
“We don’t have a good handle on what to do about it, but we do know how to address alcohol impairment,” which remains a major problem, he said. “Another problem, particularly with marijuana, is that people often combine the two, so how do you separate them?”
Although critical of the report’s findings, Rader said there is no denying that drug-impaired driving is an issue, but “we need research.”
“If somebody’s impaired,” he said, “they are impaired.”