Drugs v. Alcohol in Motor Vehicle Safety

Drugs versus Alcohol and CrashesFor decades, law enforcement officers have used proven methods for verifying suspicion of drunk driving by asking the suspect to perform three tasks including using their eyes to follow the officer’s finger moving back and forth, taking steps outside of the vehicle and standing on the leg for a one-half minute. Prosecutors and personal injury attorneys representing victims have used the result of a standard field sobriety test to prove how the motorist was driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash.

Unfortunately, medical science has yet to create a device to detect all incidents of driving while under the influence of drugs. The law enforcement officer may be able to identify an alcohol-impaired driver who stumbles on one foot when taking a field sobriety test, but a driver under the influence of drugs might be able to maintain their balance indefinitely during the same test. In recent years, many more states have begun legalizing recreational, medical marijuana, which makes it more important than ever to understand how driving under the influence of drugs can negatively affect driver behavior.

In 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted a survey and found that the number of motorists driving under the influence of marijuana group approximately 50% during the previous seven years. This number grew sharply from 8.6% in 2007 to more than 12% in 2014. Even though the NHTSA said that drug-impaired driving was increasing, alcohol-related crashes had declined by approximately one-third during the same time. NHTSA spokesperson Mark Rosekind stated that “the rising prevalence of marijuana and other drugs is a challenge to everyone who is dedicated to waiving lives and reducing crashes.” The report revealed that “evidence that marijuana use impairs psychomotor skills, divided attention, lane tracking, and cognitive functions,” every skill essential for safe driving.

Studies Reveal a Critical Problem

A recent report released by the Governors Highly Safety Administration (GHSA) revealed 2016 data that showed more than one-third of the fatally injured motorist tested for drugs had marijuana in their system at the time of the crash. Additionally, nearly 10% of the fatalities involved drivers who had amphetamines in their system. Just over half (55.4%) did not have any drug detected in their system immediately after their death caused by a vehicle crash. The high incident rate of drugs and the system was in sharp contrast compared to the fatal injury drivers tested for alcohol. Investigators detected alcohol in 39.1% of all deceased tested drivers including the 37.3% who had blood alcohol levels confirming they were driving drunk at the time of the accident.

Unfortunately, the statistics on surviving drivers is not complete. In 2015, law enforcement tested only 19% of surviving motorists for drugs after they were involved in an accident. However, of those, approximately six out of ten drivers had no drugs in their system when tested, and for those who had tested positive for drugs in their system, 46.5% tested positive for marijuana. Of the surviving drivers tested for alcohol in 2015, nearly three-fourths (72.2%) had no alcohol in their system.

The American Journal of Epidemiology published a report in January 2014 stating that “drugged driving is a safety issue of increasing public concern. Using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System for 1999 March 20, 2010, we assess trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in drivers who were killed within one hour of a motor vehicle crash and six US states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) that routinely perform toxicological testing on drivers involved in such crashes.”

The report showed that cannabinol was the most commonly detected non-alcohol drug found in drivers’ bodies who had been involved in a crash. The study concluded that “the increase in the prevalence of non-alcohol drugs was observed in all age groups in both sexes. These results indicate that non-alcohol drugs, particularly marijuana, are increasingly detected in fatally injured drivers.”

Drugged Driving Is a Daytime and Nighttime Problem

Unlike alcohol-related fatal crashes that tend to occur most often at nighttime, especially on weekend nights, statistics reveal that accidents involving drugged drivers occur consistently over weekdays, weeknights, weekend days and weekend nights. In fact, according to roadside surveys reported by the GHSA in 2015, 22.4% of individuals tested positive for drugs when involved in an accident, compared to 22.5% tested positive on weekend nights. This is cystic was almost identical per marijuana-involved in accidents during weekdays (11.7%) compared to those on weekend nights (12.6 6%). These statistics are in sharp contrast to alcohol-related accidents where 1.1% of all accidents involving alcohol occurred during daytime hours on weekdays compared to the 8.3% occurring on weekend nights.

The same studies by surveyors in 2015 show that 19.8% of individuals between 18- and 25-years old use marijuana compared to 6.5% of individuals 26 years and older. The number of individuals taking any illegal drug including marijuana was slightly higher for 18-to 25–year-olds (22.3%) and 26 years and older (8.6%). In contrast, 58.3 % of individuals 18-to 25-years old drink alcohol compared to 55.6% of individuals age 26 years and older. A Washington state 2014 roadside survey revealed that “44% of the drivers reported that they had driven within two hours after using marijuana in the past year.”

The GHSA found that “about 20% of young adults age 18-25 and about 6% of adults age 26 and above using illegal drugs or marijuana at least monthly. In comparison, over 50% of each age group drink alcohol at least monthly.” The study also revealed that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded in their roadside surveys that approximately “12-15% of drivers… tested positive for some illegal drug or marijuana, substantially more than tested positive for alcohol.” The same study revealed that “43% of fatally-injured drivers with known test results tested positive for drugs or marijuana in 2015, more than tested positive for alcohol” and “marijuana is by far the most common drug that is used… [and that marijuana use] likely increases after a state permits recreational marijuana use.”

Studies also revealed that impairment increases if the individual combines the use of drugs with alcohol. One study showed that marijuana with alcohol “dramatically impaired driving performance” likely because the combination of marijuana and alcohol together “produces significantly higher blood concentrations of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering chemical in marijuana] than marijuana use alone.” The problem of serious accidents is also likely the result of drug-involved in alcohol-involved drivers are “less likely to be buckled up and more likely to be speeding and to have committed various driving violations” while impaired.

The GHSA concluded that “any judge may increase the driver’s crash risk” and “the effect of any drug vary substantially between drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Administration also found that “the effect of any drug increases as its concentration increases” and that “some individual drugs, multiple drugs, and drugs combined with alcohol increase crash risk substantially.” They concluded that “most illegal drugs may at least double the driver’s crash risk.”

A Misunderstanding of Crash Risks

One study showed that young Australian drivers were unaware that prescription medications and illegal drugs could impair driving while some believe that driving under the influence of drugs was safer than drunk driving or that using drugs could improve their driving behavior. Likewise, young Canadian drivers shared similar abuse expressing that they believed that driving under the influence of drugs was less risky and harder to detect then driving under the influence of alcohol. These young drivers believe that using marijuana will not impair their behavior and might even “improve their driving.”

In the updated April 2017 version of the GHSA report, it noted that “as states consider strategies to reduce drug-impaired driving, it is useful to keep in mind the many ways in which drugs present different and more complex issues than alcohol.” This study showed that there were significant factors that make it harder for law enforcement to keep the public safe when motorists are operating their vehicles under the influence of drugs. Some of these factors include:

  • Diversity – While there are hundreds of drugs that can affect the body differently, all alcohol products affect the body similarly.
  • Drug-Impaired Crash Data – While researchers have been collecting abundant data on alcohol and driving, there are limited studies on drug-impaired crashes.
  • Driver Patterns – Drug-impaired drivers appear to be every legal driving age compared to higher rates of males being involved in alcohol-related crashes on weekend nights.
  • Drug and Alcohol Use Trends – Studies show that there is a decreasing consumption of alcohol by American drivers compared to an increase in the number of drivers stopped for drug-impairment.
  • Impairment Affects Driving Skills – There are many well-documented studies showing that alcohol can impair driving alternatively, there is a lack of the number of studies on how drugs impaired driving because of the diversity of hundreds of drugs that could cause impairment in diverse ways.
  • Drug Concentrations Affect Driving Skills – Researchers have yet to identify the relationship between concentrated levels of medications and the body and how it impairs the system versus the well-established correlation between impairment and alcohol in the bloodstream that can be measured through breathalyzers and blood samples.
  • Crash Risks – there are precise estimates of how alcohol as for increase the risk of a crash in compared to the vague estimates of how drugs can impair drivers can lead to vehicle accidents.
  • Comment Motorists Beliefs – Many drivers understand that alcohol can impair their ability to operate the vehicle compared to their lack of belief that many medications can impair driving.
  • Society’s Attitudes – Society has yet to come to terms with the social acceptability that its bad to drink and drive but just as bad to drive under the influence of drugs.

A Law-Enforcement Approach to Drugged Driving

The well-established rules involving driving under the influence of alcohol have proven effective to law enforcement officers arresting drunk drivers and prosecutors presenting their case to hold the intoxicated driver legally accountable to the community. Even though the driving under the influence remains illegal in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, the law enforcement officer must be able to identify that the motorist is impaired by a legal or illegal medication. Because successful prosecution of the case is dependent on obtaining some type of chemical evidence, the officer must be trained in the signs and symptoms of drug impairment that is often not very well understood. In fact, most officers have not received sufficient training to identify many of the symptoms associated with drugged driving. Additionally, identifying the concentration of the drug in the bloodstream at the time that the accident occurred can be complicated and not accurately measured in many cases.

Many lavatories are overwhelmed with test samples and might not be able to provide the results of these tests before the case is heard in front of a judge and jury. Prosecutors are often challenged with linking the drug to the impaired driver especially if they cannot explain the correlation to the jury to show that the driver was impaired when the accident occurred. All recent attempts to standardize impairment testing for drugs that are similar to a BAC blood alcohol level of 0.08 for alcohol impairment has failed. Many toxicologists have made claims that there is no way to scientifically support a correlation between a medication and an impairment level.

Holding the Drugged Driver Financially Liable

Was a member of your family injured or killed in a crash that was caused by a drug driver? If so, the drug driver injury attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers (888-424-5757) can protect your legal rights and provide legal options to obtain financial compensation to recover your financial damages. Our team of attorneys understands the emotional trauma give experienced by the car crash and will fight aggressively on your behalf to pursue monetary recovery on your behalf. Our lawyers provide personal, compassionate attention from discussing your case to resolving your claim in court.

We invite you to contact our law offices today at (888) 424-5757 to schedule a free, no-obligation case evaluation with our reputable Chicago drugged driving accident legal team. We have helped thousands of victims and their families in counties throughout the state and can we help you too. We offer every client a “No Win/No-Fee” Guarantee, meaning if we are unable to secure financial compensation on your behalf, you owe us nothing. Contact us today to discuss your case before the Illinois statute of limitations expires. All information you share with our law offices will remain confidential.

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