While drunk driving accidents and deaths are on the overall decline – both in Massachusetts and nationwide – there is another growing concern, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration: Drugged drivers.
Two recent studies by the agency point to this fact.
One of those is the most recent Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers, which revealed the number of motorists in the U.S. with alcohol in their blood declined by almost one-third in the last eight years. The figure has dropped by more than two-thirds since 1973.
That’s significant, to be sure. Still, there is a major and growing problem involving motorists who are impaired by other substances – namely, marijuana, prescriptions drugs and a combination of intoxicants.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center report that while there has been a decline in the overall number of impaired driver fatalities, the type of impairment noted is shifting. For example, between 1993 and 2010, the percentage of drivers with three or more drugs in their system almost doubled.
More recently, the NHTSA’s Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk Report indicates the number of nighttime, weekend drivers found with drugs in their system spiked from 16 percent in 2007 to 20 percent last year. When looking at just marijuana, that figure ballooned by 50 percent.
While a recent Washington Post article took that information and ran with a headline of “Stoned Drivers are a Lot Safer Than Drunk Ones,” the fact is, drivers impaired by marijuana are still at higher risk for crashes than those who are not under the influence of anything.
It was when the data was controlled for age, gender, race and alcohol use that drivers who tested positive for marijuana did not have higher crash rates. But here’s another sticking point, which the NHTSA is quick to point out: The presence of marijuana in one’s system is not indication of impairment in the same way as alcohol. So for example, a person whose blood-alcohol level indicates a high concentration of alcohol is clearly impaired and therefore more likely to crash. Meanwhile, a person with a high concentration of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in their system is not necessarily impaired. On the contrary, they could simply be a regular user who has built up a concentration of the drug in their system. It does not necessarily mean the person is under the influence at that moment.
So in the end, it’s not truly a fair comparison. It would be like testing driver crash rates days or weeks after they were known to consume alcohol.
Plus, NHTSA study authors noted the effects of psychoactive drugs may vary from person-to-person, whereas alcohol’s effects are more predictable.
It’s simply not a completely accurate comparison. Although several states have passed laws that try to define what it means to be impaired by marijuana, most still fall short of a universally-applicable, accurate measure.
That doesn’t mean it’s safe to drive impaired by marijuana. It just means we need to get better at testing drivers for it.
And of course, our Boston DUI injury lawyers recognize this poses difficulty in civil cases as well. Because it is tougher to prove drug impairment than alcohol impairment, it may be harder to show the other driver acted with negligence.
If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston drunk driving accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at (617) 777-7777.
Stoned drivers are a lot safer than drunk ones, new federal data show, Feb. 9, 2015, By Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post
Drugged Driving Increases as Drunk Driving Declines, Feb. 9, 2015, Claims Journal
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East Boston Power Lines Taken Out by Drunk Driver, Jan. 21, 2015, Boston Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer Blog