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On January 25, 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it was launching a new initiative to combat drugged driving, which they describe as “a growing problem on U.S. roads.”

Indeed, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.7 million people aged 16 and older drove under the influence of alcohol in the past year, while 11.8 million drove under the influence of illicit drugs. In April 2017, CNN reported that driving while on drugs was associated with more deaths in 2015 than driving with alcohol in one’s system.

The NHTSA states that the national opioid epidemic and the legalization of marijuana in many states is “making the drugged-driving problem a top priority…” They are hosting a summit on March 15, 2018, to bring together key experts and stakeholders to discuss how this problem can be addressed.

Drugs Can Impair Driving as Much as Alcohol

A recent report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) indicated that drug-impaired driving is “an increasingly critical issue,” with drugs present in 43 percent of the fatally injured drivers with a known test result in 2015.

They noted that marijuana use, in particular, is increasing, with recreational use now allowed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. An additional 13 others have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that after alcohol, marijuana is the drug most often found in driver blood tests after crashes. Tests measure the level of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the system. THC is the compound responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects.

The NIDA also references studies that have shown drivers with THC in their blood “were roughly twice as likely to be responsible for a deadly crash or be killed than drivers who hadn’t used drugs or alcohol.

Drug-Impaired Driving More Difficult to Prosecute

The GHSA also notes that drug-impaired driving can be more complex than alcohol-impaired driving. The effects of various drugs on the body and on driving ability are not yet fully understood, and the fact that some drugs can interact with others (even over-the-counter drugs) makes the issue more difficult to sort out.

It can be more difficult to detect drug impairment at the actual crash site than alcohol impairment since so far only a blood test is reliable (whereas alcohol impairment can be detected with a breath test). Finally, it is more difficult to prosecute and convict a driver for drug-impaired driving than alcohol-impaired driving, partly because of varying laws across the states.

The NHTSA hopes to lead a national dialogue on all these issues and is working with law enforcement, elected officials, safety experts, and toxicologists to find ways to educate the public on the issue, improve testing of driver impairment levels, and increase enforcement of driving-under-the-influence-of-drug (DUID) laws. Currently, DUID is against the law in all 50 states.

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