NHTSA Study Highlights Dangers of Drugged Drivers

Drunk driving has been the major focus of many highway safety campaigns; however, drug impaired driving is also a significant safety concern. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported in 2003 that about 18 percent of traffic deaths were linked to drugs other than alcohol. A more recent NHTSA study reveals that drug-related intoxication is more prevalent than previously thought.

In November 2010, the NHTSA published its statistical summary, “Drug Involvement of Fatally Injured Drivers.” Reviewing Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data for the years 2005 to 2009, the federal safety watchdog found that for those drivers fatally injured 18 percent tested positive for drugs in 2009. In hard numbers, nearly 4,000 fatally injured drivers tested positive for drug involvement in 2009. This was a significant increase from the 13 percent reported for 2005.

While these findings were dependent on testing methods and frequency, the numbers could be higher. Some states and territories, including the District of Columbia and Hawaii, did not test fatally injured drivers. Most states tested between 10 to 70 percent of these drivers. Only sister states, Mississippi (98 percent) and Maine (100 percent) tested nearly all of their fatally injured drivers.

As a result of the NHTSA study findings, the National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) office called for more action on the disturbingly high proportion of traffic fatalities involving drugged drivers. The National Institute on Drug Use (NIDU), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), report that driving under the influence of drugs impairs motor skills, reaction time, and judgment. This means that all people sharing our roadways are at risk from drugged drivers.

A majority of states and the District of Columbia have put into operation drug evaluation and classification programs to help law enforcement recognize behaviors associated with drug intoxication. Still other states have enacted “per se” laws that make it illegal to operate motor vehicles under the influence of drugs; however, drug impaired legislation does not have the specificity or consistent monitoring that drunk or alcohol impaired driving laws have.

Driving under the influence of drugs is a serious public safety issue that warrants priority attention. With the risk of drugged driving becoming more apparent, federal agencies, state legislatures, safety organizations, and law enforcement need to really focus on this growing issue.