Why Drugged Driving is the New Drunk Driving

The use of drugs by drivers is a growing threat on our streets. Whether the drugs are prescribed, legally bought over the counter at your local pharmacy or purchased from a drug dealer, the result may be the same – driving so impaired that the driver is a danger to himself and others. No matter the driver’s age or why the drugs are used, more Americans are being injured and killed by drugged drivers.

Although not as common as drunk driving, drugged driving is having an impact none of us want. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported the following:


  • 11.8 million people aged 16 or older drove under the influence of illicit drugs over the past year.,
  • Men are more likely than women to drive under the influence of drugs.
  • A higher percentage of young adults 18 to 25 years old drive after using drugs than older adults.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies have found ...


  • In 2009, 18% of drivers killed in a vehicle accident tested positive for at least one drug.
  • In 2010, 11% of deadly crashes involved a drugged driver.


Drug use impairs driving

How a drug can impact a driver depends on a number of factors, including the type of drug, the size of the driver, whether other drugs or alcohol are used at the same time, the person’s health and even his or her mood. Generally, the following drugs can lead to dangerous driving:


  • Marijuana can worsen reaction time, impair perception of time and distance and lessen coordination.
  • Drivers who have used cocaine or methamphetamine can be aggressive and reckless.
  • Some sedatives (benzodiazepines) can cause dizziness and drowsiness.


Marijuana is the drug most often found in blood tests of drivers involved in crashes, after alcohol.


  • Its use by drivers can lead to lane weaving and altered attention to the road.
  • Drinking alcohol while using marijuana makes drivers more impaired, resulting in more lane weaving.
  • Studies have shown that drivers with marijuana’s active ingredient in their bloodstream were about twice as likely to cause a deadly crash or be killed than drivers who hadn't used drugs or alcohol.


Use of legal drugs before driving can cause accidents

It’s not just illegal drugs that are the problem. Prescription drug use is also a common cause of drugged driving crashes.


  • A 2010 study of fatal vehicle accidents found about 47% of drivers testing positive for drug use had taken a prescription drug.
  • That’s far greater than the portion of drivers using marijuana (37%) or cocaine (10%).
  • Pain relievers were the most common prescription drugs found in blood tests of fatal accident victims.


Over the counter (OTC) drugs are those you can buy legally without a prescription. Use of them, especially with prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol, can impair your driving. According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, the OTC drugs most likely to impact driving include these:


  • Antihistamines, which treat runny noses, sneezing, itching of the nose or throat, and itchy or watery eyes. Some of these drugs, including diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, can make you feel drowsy, unfocused and slow to react.
  • Antidiarrheals treat or control symptoms of diarrhea and can cause a driver to become drowsy.
  • Anti-emetics treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness that can come with motion sickness. They can also cause drowsiness and impair driving.


Younger and older drivers impacted the hardest

Drivers of all ages are known to use drugs then drive, but those on both ends of the age spectrum seem especially affected.

Teen drivers, because of their lack of experience and greater chance of taking dangerous risks, are more likely than older drivers to underestimate or not recognize dangerous situations. Speeding and tailgating are also more common with teen drivers. Teen drivers and drug use are a dangerous combination, with vehicle accidents being the leading cause of death for people aged 16 to 19 years old.

A 2011 survey of middle and high school students showed how common teen drugged driving can be. In the two weeks prior to the survey, 12% of high school seniors stated they had driven after using marijuana ,which is a higher rate than those who admitted to drinking alcohol and driving (9%).

A study of college students with access to a car found that one in six had driven after using a drug other than alcohol at least once in the past year. Marijuana was the most popular drug, followed by cocaine and prescription pain medications.

Older drivers have also seen increases in drugged driving.


  • More than a quarter of drugged drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2010 were aged 50 years or older.
  • The use of illegal drugs by those 50 to 59 years old has increased, doubling from 3% in 2002 to 7% in 2010.


Seniors may unintentionally be getting behind the wheel too drugged to safely drive.


  • They may mistakenly use a prescription drug more often or in a higher dosage.
  • Older adults may not metabolize the drug as quickly as younger people, causing intoxication.


We need to look at the potential for driving impairment due to drug use like we’re increasingly doing with alcohol. We need to realize it’s a problem. If you’re abusing drugs, get medical help so you can stop. If you take medication that causes drowsiness, let someone else drive, use public transportation, a taxi service, Uber or Lyft. The life you save may be your own or that of a family member or friend.