States can act to discourage driving while drugged.

Courtesy Colorado DOT

On September 30, 2015, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) issued a report that recommends certain actions that states can implement to combat an epidemic of people who drive while high on marijuana and other drugs. The report also recommends that the United States government mount a national drugged driving education campaign. The report places an emphasis on pot partly because 23 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical use, while Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska have legalized its recreational use, wrote Trevor Hughes for USA TODAY.

Although the U.S. has made much progress in the fight against drunk driving, there needs to be more education about the hazards of drugged driving, the report says. Indeed, while the incidence of drunk driving is decreasing, drugged driving is on the rise. According to the GHSA, “the most recent roadside survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 22 percent of drivers tested positive for some drug or medication.”

Prescription Drug Abuse

Abuse of prescription drugs is also a problem because many people who take such drugs also drive.

The USA TODAY states:

Of all drivers who died in crashes and who were tested for drug use in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, about 40% tested positive for drugs. Of those, more than a third tested positive for marijuana, the report said. Vehicle crashes killed 32,719 people in 2013.

Dr. James Hedlund, a former senior NHTSA official who wrote the report, said it shows how much is still not known about how much of a specific drug will cause impairment, or if that can even be defined. He added that many states do not have the data to measure the scope or characteristics of drug-impaired driving.

The report mentions that in focus groups and surveys with regular marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, almost all believed that their driving is not impaired by marijuana, and some believed marijuana improves their driving. Most such marijuana users surveyed in those two states said they drive high on a regular basis. They believed they can compensate for being high and prevent car accidents by driving more slowly or by allowing more “headway.”

Above the THC Limit

Most pot users in Colorado were not aware that it’s an offense to drive with a THC concentration above the state’s “per se” limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of whole blood. The report notes that “Under a per se law it is illegal to drive with amounts of specified drugs in the body that exceed set limits.” However it is not certain to what extent this law has been effective since most recent Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID) citations are for concentrations of less than 5 nanograms.

In an article for AutoBlog by Pete Bigelow, Glenn Davis, highway safety manager for the Colorado Office of Transportation Safety, said, “In Colorado, it’s sometimes difficult to get a true assessment, because alcohol is overwhelmingly the most-used drug.” Davis, an advisory panel member on the report, added that because law enforcement in Colorado is highly trained for alcohol arrests, if a driver has been using both alcohol and drugs, that is what law enforcement will check for.

The report says that although a chemical test of a driver’s blood, urine, or saliva provides objective proof of the presence (or absence) of drugs in a driver’s body, a driver is permitted to refuse such a test. And 31% of people recently arrested for DUI in Colorado did refuse such a test. Obtaining a blood sample can take hours. If a driver does not agree to such a test, a state has to get a search warrant from a judge, except in rare circumstances. In addition, the driver may need to be brought to a hospital or clinic if a trained phlebotomist is not available to take a blood sample at the scene of the arrest. But the driver’s blood drug concentration can drop considerably in the time it takes until that sample is drawn.

Outreach to Youth

The report cites Ohio’s “Drugged Driving — Done Driving” grassroots program as one of the first statewide efforts to educate teens on the dangers of drugged driving, with its peer-to-peer social media campaign, outreach via youth and traffic safety groups, public service announcements, and support from national celebrities, political and law enforcement leaders, and national organizations. It also lists Colorado’s “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign, along with Washington’s “Drive High, Get a DUI BBQ” campaign.

States are advised to do the following, according to the report:

  • Planning: Assess the data and understand what is happening now.
  • Laws and Sanctions: Examine and update drug-impaired driving laws.
  • Training: Provide training to law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges.
  • Testing: Test all fatally-injured drivers for the presence of drugs.
  • Prosecution and Adjudication: Screen and assess all offenders to identify any drug or alcohol problems or underlying mental health issues and refer offenders to treatment if needed.
  • Data: Track all alcohol- and drug-impaired driver crash data separately to best assess the problem.

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