Drugged driving doesn’t get as much national attention as drunk driving, but it’s every bit as dangerous. Like alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs impair teens’ ability to drive safely and are part of the reason motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death among young people.
Experts warn that legalization may make the problem worse, leading teens to buy into common misconceptions like:
“If it’s legal, it can’t be that dangerous.”
“Marijuana isn’t as harmful as alcohol. If anything, people drive more carefully when they’re high.
A Growing Threat
Although it’s difficult to measure how many crashes are caused by drugged driving, drugs are increasingly involved in reports of driving under the influence. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found about 20 million people drove drunk and about 12 million drove under the influence of drugs. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Safety Research:
- About 8% of adults reported driving drunk.
- About 4% drove under the influence of marijuana.
A significant number of adults used both alcohol and other drugs and then got behind the wheel. This echoes findings from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which found that over half of fatally injured drivers in 2016 were under the influence of two or more drugs. Combining drugs can make drivers more impaired, increasing the risk of deadly accidents.
How Drugs Affect Driving Ability
Here are some of the drugs most commonly involved in drugged driving and the ways they impair driving ability:
Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in DUI cases. Teens typically have lower tolerance levels and get intoxicated at lower doses than adults. Alcohol affects essential abilities like:
- Ability to track moving objects or stay in their lane
- Reaction time
Marijuana is second to alcohol as the drug most often involved in drugged driving accidents. The chances of an accident double when a driver has used marijuana. Driving ability is particularly impaired when the driver used marijuana along with other substances.
While some studies show marijuana users may drive slower, their ability to focus on tasks, avoid lane weaving, and maintain other basic driving skills is compromised. Some of the ways marijuana impairs driving include:
- Poor judgment of time and distance
- Reduced attention to the road, causing lane weaving
- Slowed reaction time
- Decreased motor coordination and balance
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show almost 20% of drivers involved in DUIs tested positive for an opioid. Although opioids are the class of drugs most commonly tied to drugged driving accidents, benzodiazepines, and other medications can also impair driving ability. Prescription painkillers are dangerous because they:
- Induce drowsiness or dizziness
- Impair thinking and judgment
Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine contribute to motor vehicle accidents at a lower, but still significant rate. Effects can include:
- Reckless or aggressive behavior
- Poor judgment
The effects of these drugs can be amplified when teens use more than one substance at a time, which is common.
Talking to Teens About Drugged Driving
There are several important points to make when talking to young people about the dangers of drugged driving:
1. Experience and the Teen Brain
Teens are one of the groups most affected by drugged driving. Although teens are less likely to drink and drive than adults, they’re more likely to crash even after drinking at low levels. Many teens mistakenly believe drugged driving is less dangerous than drunk driving. There are many possible reasons for this misconception:
- Teen brains are still developing and they have less driving experience than adults, making it harder for them to recognize dangerous situations.
- They may not feel impaired with marijuana or prescription drugs in the same way as alcohol, but they are still too impaired to drive safely.
- It may seem easier to get away with drugged driving because reliable roadside tests for certain drugs may not be available yet.
- Friends often add to the problem by minimizing the risks of marijuana and other drugs.
2. The Consequences
Driving under the influence of any substance is a serious problem. Look for opportunities, such as when you’re driving together or your teen asks to borrow the car, to talk through the possible consequences of drugged driving. These include:
- The impact on intoxicated drivers, such as DUIs and other legal problems. A DUI offense can lead to teens losing their license or car, jail time, and mandatory drug rehab.
- The impact on passengers and other drivers on the road, including injuries and death.
3. Legal to Buy, Not Legal or Safe to Drive
Marijuana and prescription drugs may be legal, but it is not legal to drive with them in your system. Legal doesn’t mean safe. It is against the law in all 50 states to drive while under the influence of drugs. Some states have zero-tolerance laws, which means it is a violation for someone to drive with any amount of a drug in their system.
Drugged driving is on the rise – and the tragedies it causes are entirely preventable. You can help protect your teens and others by making sure you educate your child on the dangers of drugged driving. Talk openly and often, setting clear rules against impaired driving or riding in a car with a driver who is under the influence. Explore ways to get out of tough situations like appointing a designated driver or getting a ride to and from parties.
Don’t shy away from these conversations: they can save lives.