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‘Drugged driving’ emerges as threat

Chris Kissell

Today, most people are aware of the life-threatening dangers of drunken driving. But “drugged driving” also is a major problem.

Although alcohol technically is classified as a drug, “drugged driving” generally refers to the act of operating a vehicle under the influence of other substances, says Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“Drugged driving includes driving while under the influence of illegal drugs, prescription medications and sometimes even over-the-counter medications,” she says. When these substances are combined with alcohol, the situation is known as “poly-abuse,” Withers says.

“While drunk driving remains the primary threat to safety on our roadways, poly-abuse and drugged driving is a problem,” she says.

Awareness of drugged driving is growing but remains in its infancy, says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. She equates the situation to where recognition of the dangers of drunken driving was a couple of decades ago.

“It’s a very difficult problem that we are just beginning to grapple with,” she says.

State laws and drugged driving

To help push the issue into the spotlight, MADD has declared December as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.

“Driving under the influence no longer simply means drunk driving,” Withers says. “The substances may be different, but the consequences are the same.”

The problem is significant. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

  • In 2009, 18 percent of U.S. drivers who were killed and then tested were found to have drugs in their system. The percentage of dead drivers with drugs in their system climbed steadily between 2005 and 2009, according to NHTSA.
  • In 2007, 16 percent of tested nighttime drivers were found to have drugs in their system. The most commonly found drugs were marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.  

Currently, just three states – California, Hawaii and New York – have laws that separate driving under the influence of alcohol, driving while impaired by other drugs, and driving while under a combination of alcohol and other drugs, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

However, 17 other states have per se (Latin for “by itself”) laws that forbid the presence of any amount of a prohibited substance in a driver’s body.

Harsha says concerns about the prevalence of drugged driving are growing now that states are legalizing medical marijuana and two states – Colorado and Washington – recently voted to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Testing troubles

One of the greatest difficulties in curbing drugged driving is that testing methods remain far less advanced than those used for drunken driving.

Currently, law enforcement officers can stop motorists who are driving erratically. But roadside testing for impairment by substances other than alcohol remains elusive, Harsha says. She says it’s difficult to draw the line between someone who has drugs in his system and someone who is impaired by those drugs.

“We’d like to see all the states pass drug per se laws,” Harsha says.

In addition, the Governors Highway Safety Association hopes new roadside drugged-driving testing methods become common. Such equipment might include a saliva test that lets law enforcement officers test drivers on the spot, Harsha says. “We really need good, reliable field-testing equipment,” she says.

Harsha also thinks society needs to become better educated about effects of driving with drugs in your system. “There’s obviously a need for a tremendous amount of research on drugged driving,” she says.

Effect on your car insurance

Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute, says she does not know how individual insurance companies treat drugged driving as opposed to drunken driving.

However, she says that driving under the influence of any substance “is obviously dangerous” and can lead to higher premiums. “It can be costly because it leads to car accidents,” she says. “Your driving behavior and history are key factors affecting what you pay for auto insurance.”

Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group, also doubts insurers view drugged driving any differently from drunken driving when setting rates. “I don’t think the impact differs at all from drunk driving,” Passmore says.

Whether you’re talking about drunken driving or drugged driving, the takeaway for drivers remains the same, Passmore says: “It’s bad. Don’t do it.”

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