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Drugged Drivers Using Multiple Substances

Drugged driving is the equivalent of drunk driving; instead of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a person who participates in this activity operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of a mind-altering drug or medication. In a study published in July/August 2014 in the journal Public Health Reports, researchers from two U.S. institutions used data from a federal program called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System to examine the long-term trends in fatal episodes of drugged driving over the course of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. These researchers concluded that the phenomenon of drugged driving has changed considerably in terms of the substances typically used by affected drivers, as well as in the number of substances used in combination.

Understanding Drugged Driving

Any drug or medication with the ability to alter human perception can interfere with the basic ability to safely operate a car, truck or other motor vehicle. Specific problems depend on the substance in use, but general problems associated with driving while under the influence of mind-altering drugs/medications include a decreased ability to notice important changes in driving circumstances, a decreased ability to track or remember such changes, a decreased ability to produce the muscle coordination needed to drive safely, a decreased ability to produce the mental focus needed to drive safely, a decreased ability to make appropriate driving decisions and a decreased ability to react to other vehicles on the road and avoid accidents.

Driving while impaired by a mind-altering drug or medication is every bit as illegal as driving while impaired by alcohol. Specific substances noted for their ability to contribute to dangerous driving behaviors include marijuana and other forms of cannabis, sedative medications, opioid drugs or medications, amphetamines, methamphetamine and cocaine. Not surprisingly, all of these substances can also act as sources of diagnosable abuse or addiction. There is no single standard for detecting the presence of drugs or medications in a driver. Technically speaking, any amount of a given substance could substantially interfere with a person’s driving abilities.

The Fatality Analysis Reporting System

The Fatality Analysis Reporting System is maintained by the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Each year, this system tracks the drivers in the U.S. who get involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents. It also tracks the number of accident-involved drivers under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medications, as well as the types of substances involved in any particular crash. The NHTSA has gathered information through the Fatality Analysis Reporting System regularly since 1975.

Changes in Substances Used

In the study published in Public Health Reports, researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the New York Academy of Medicine used data from 17 annual reports of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System to track the changes in the drugs and medications found in people involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. The researchers also tracked the changes in the demographic backgrounds (gender, age, education level, etc.) of drug/medication users who get involved in fatal crashes. The years under consideration ran from 1993 to 2010.

In a preliminary finding, the researchers concluded that the number of drugged driving-related fatal motor vehicle accidents declined during the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. However, they also concluded that the substance-related factors in such accidents have changed significantly. For example, increasing numbers of drivers involved in fatal crashes now test positive for either a mind-altering prescription medication or for some form of cannabis (marijuana, hashish or hashish oil). In addition, the number of fatality-involved drugged drivers with three or more substances in their systems increased by almost 100 percent during the time frame under examination. The researchers also concluded that people over the age of 50 were substantially more likely to be involved in a fatal drugged driving event in 2010 than in 1993.

The study’s authors note that several factors contributed to the changes in drugged driving-related fatalities, including the increasing overall age of the U.S. population, the increased likelihood that older adults will use multiple medications and the long-term trend of marijuana decriminalization and legalization. They believe that each of these factors may have a heightened impact in the years ahead. The study’s authors note that 18 U.S. states have laws that heavily penalize drugged drivers; unfortunately, these laws may not have the desired effect of reducing the rate of drug-related driving fatalities.

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