Headline: Driving Under the Influence of Drugs is Now Deadlier than Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol
You might have heard something on the news or read a news story, or perhaps you only caught the headline suggesting that drugged driving now surpasses drunken driving in fatal crashes. Well, not exactly. What these news stories are citing is an updated report from the U.S. Department of Transportation Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The FARS study surveyed data of drug and alcohol testing of drivers who died in a car crash and found that 44.6% of the drivers had drugs in their system, while only 39.1% had alcohol in their system. But the statistics are murky: not all fatally-injured drivers were tested for drugs or alcohol; 57% were tested for drugs and 70.9% were tested for alcohol. At first glance, the fact that more fatally injured drivers were tested for alcohol than for drugs and less showed positive for alcohol might seem to make an even better case for the claim that there are more fatalities due to drugged driving than drunken driving.
But that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. FARS collect data from what the individual states report—and those reports can vary considerably. Not all states test an equal number of fatally injured drivers. For example, 2 states test 15% or fewer fatally injured drivers, while 9 states test 85% or more. The most frequently found drug in those that were tested was marijuana, being 35.6%. But as I have previously discussed, marijuana will be detected in a person’s blood long after the effects have worn off. The state data used by the NARS study does not distinguish between the active and inactive metabolites and THC levels.
Marijuana being, by far, the most prevalent drug found in the NARS study may, and very likely does, give the inaccurate impression that drugged driving has surpassed drunken driving—at least as far as fatal crashes are concerned. But since we don’t know how many of those who tested positive for marijuana were actually under the influence of marijuana at the time of the fatal crash, we cannot reliably conclude that fatalities involving drivers under the influence of drugs surpasses those under the influence of alcohol. Furthermore, there have not been enough studies conducted to determine how much marijuana it takes to influence a person’s driving.
One conclusion we can take from the NARS report with a fair degree of certainty is that the number of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs in their system has risen significantly since 2005, when only 28 percent of fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs. Even so, the various state testing regimes and reporting could have changed during the intervening years.
Many safety experts continue to warn that driving while impaired by alcohol continues to be the biggest danger on our roads. A European study cited by the NARS report analyzed the relative crash risk under various drug influenced categories. The study found that there is a slightly increased risk (relative risk of 1-3) if the driver is under the influence of marijuana , a medium increased risk (relative risk of 2-10) if the driver is under the influence of benzodiazepines (which are prescription drugs), cocaine, or opioids, a highly increased risk (relative risk of 5-30) if the driver is under the influence of amphetamines or multiple drugs, and an extremely increased risk (relative risk of 20-200) if the driver is under the influence of alcohol together with drugs. Clearly, our biggest safety risk is alcohol and alcohol plus drugs.
While there is statistical and anecdotal evidence that more Americans are taking more drugs, we should not lose sight of the fact that driving under the influence of alcohol, which is still the most common drug of choice, remains the greatest danger on our nation’s roads and highways.
William Weinberg has almost 25 years of experience in defending drivers charged with driving under the influence. You may consult with him about your DUI matter by contacting him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or emailing him at Bill@williamweinberg.com.