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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released two new studies that highlight the changing landscape of impaired driving on America’s roadways.

NHTSA’s most recent Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers shows a steady and significant decline in drunk driving—rates have dropped by nearly a third since 2007, and by more than three-quarters since 1973. NHTSA largely credits the drop to education and enforcement campaigns that target intoxicated driving.

Drugged Driving Presents New Challenges

But the good news on drunk driving is countered by skyrocketing rates of drugged driving, which have risen sharply in recent years. According to the roadside survey, “nearly one in four drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could affect safety,” with marijuana topping the list.

The spike in stoned drivers is catching the attention of states that have or are considering making medical or recreational marijuana use legal. Many law enforcement agencies are concerned that people view drugged driving as more acceptable than drunk driving.

Marijuana vs. Alcohol

Yet the second study released by NHTSA notes that it is not yet clear the extent to which marijuana impairs a person’s ability to operate a vehicle. Researchers attempted to determine if using pot is associated with a higher level of crashes but were unable to definitively show a link. The study shows a correlation between drivers who test positive for THC and a slight increase in crash rates. However, the research was unable to determine if the increase was due to marijuana usage or other risk factors.

In contrast, research has established that drivers with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit are 5 to 200 times more likely to be in a crash than someone who is sober. Experts speculate these findings could be explained in part by the differences in how the body processes alcohol and drugs. Drivers with a positive BAC are actively impaired at the time of the test. In contrast, evidence of drug use can remain in the body long after the impairing effects of the drug have worn off.

NHTSA emphasizes that far more research on drugged driving is needed to get a better understanding on how drug use affects a person’s ability to operate a car. What is your jurisdiction doing to address the issue of drugged driving?

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has nearly two decades of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined SCRAM Systems in 2013 and is the Director of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to SCRAM Systems, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.