Tox Tuesday: Drugged driving

Drugs2_blogAlthough the problems caused by drunk driving are well known, its lesser-known cousin drugged driving also can have devastating consequences.

Drugged driving refers to operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs, including illegal substances and those prescribed by a doctor. Often, these drugs can cause impairment, such as reduced motor function, poor judgment and reduced perception, according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Although rates of drugged driving have decreased in recent years, it still remains a dangerous problem. A 2012 report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that from 2006 to 2009, 4.3 percent (or about 10.1 million) of people 16 and older in the U.S. drove while under the influence of illicit drugs, down from 4.8 percent in 2002 to 2005. Additionally, the ONDCP found in 2007 that about one in six (16.3 percent) of weekend nighttime drivers tested positive for illicit drugs (11.3 percent), prescription medications (3.9 percent) or a combination of both (1.1 percent).

In the U.S., 18 states have “strict per se laws” (read: zero tolerance) outlawing the presence of any prohibited substance in a driver while in a vehicle (this includes drugs). However, 49 states have specific programs that train law enforcement officials to recognize impaired drivers and determine what drug or combination or drugs is causing the impairment, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

In the United Kingdom, a recent study found as many as one in five motorists has driven after using drugs. About 7 percent admitted driving after using illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy, while roughly 12 percent said they had driven after taking prescription medicines (half without reading the drug information, including whether it was safe to drive while taking the drug), BBC reports. The U.K.’s government is working to crack down on drugged driving, with legislation planned for next year. However, a plan to make it simpler to prosecute those driving under the influence of drugs was released last month in England and Wales.

Unlike those stopped for drunk driving, law enforcement officials currently don’t have a piece of approved roadside equipment to measure intoxication in suspected drugged driving cases. Drugs often are consumed in lower amounts then alcohol, which also make it more difficult to detect (Cusack et al.). Additionally, most drug tests rely on the use of urine or blood, both of which aren’t feasible for roadside collection (also, drug concentrations decrease over time, making it difficult to get an accurate measure if the suspect has to be transported elsewhere for sample collection). Other tests that rely on saliva are much easier to administer roadside; however, more work needs to be conducted to fully implement this type of testing (Cusack et al.).

Numerous groups across several countries have called for drugged driving to be an increased focus, including GHSA , the White House and ministers in the U.K.

Cusack D, Leavy P, Maguire R. Report on roadside drug testing and equipment and related matters. Medical Bureau of Road Safety. 2012 June: 1-88

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