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Drugged Driving on the Rise: Is Your Teen Safe?

Marijuana buds with car key.

Today’s parents grew up with phrases like “don’t drink and drive” being repeatedly drilled into their brains as children. As a result, drunk driving fatalities have plunged over the last quarter century, falling by more than half since 1982 and by a whopping 80 percent for people under the age of 21.

These days, the U.S. faces a different problem: drugged driving.

Now Worse Than Drunk Driving

Though there have always been some people who got behind the wheel after taking illicit drugs, the prevalence of this behavior used to pale in comparison to driving while intoxicated. Now, however, new research indicates that drugged driving has become deadlier than drunk driving.

According to a study released last year by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and the Governors Highway Safety Association, some 43 percent of drivers who died in auto crashes in 2015 tested positive for drugs, compared to the 37 percent of those who were found with alcohol in their system that year. It is the first time that driving deaths associated with drugs exceeded those that were linked to alcohol.

Marijuana: The #1 Offender

Unsurprisingly, the most common drug for which drivers tested positive by police was marijuana. The research showed that 35 percent of all positive drug tests of drivers revealed the presence of marijuana. Marijuana is now legal for recreational or medical use in 29 states and the District of Columbia, although marijuana-impaired driving is prohibited everywhere in the U.S.

Teens are Vulnerable

As is common, teenagers are following this trend being set by adults. A 2011 study found that during the two weeks prior to being surveyed, 12 percent of high school seniors admitted to driving a vehicle after consuming marijuana, and 20 percent said they had ridden in a vehicle with a driver who had used marijuana. Both of those figures were 33 percent higher than those for driving or riding with drivers who had drunk alcohol.

Why Drugged Driving is Hazardous

Though some teens may believe that marijuana is less dangerous than other drugs, this is not the case when it comes to traffic accidents. Teenagers who smoke marijuana are 65 percent more likely to be involved in a collision than their peers who do not partake.

Graphic of a human head siloette with car and smoking pipe.

The reason is that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has been shown to slow down reaction time, decrease coordination, and worsen judgment of distance and time. Other drugs like amphetamines or cocaine can cause aggressive driving, while barbiturates or sedatives can lead to drowsiness and dizziness.

Prevention Challenges

One possible explanation for the rise in drugged driving deaths is the difficulty in policing this behavior. In most states, teenagers who test positive for any amount of any illicit substance can automatically be charged with driving under the influence or a similar offense. However, there is no standardized field sobriety test that is designed to detect drug use in a driver (unlike Breathalyzers for alcohol). So unless a law enforcement official can obtain a blood sample from a suspected drugged driver (which usually requires a warrant), there is no way to ascertain whether the individual is impaired by drugs.

How to Combat Teen Drugged Driving

For parents who are concerned about teen drug use and drugged driving, there are some strategies that can be followed. Many of them resemble the same ones embraced by drunk driving prevention advocates, including designating a sober driver, refusing to ride with classmates who have taken drugs, and educating teens about the dangers of drug use and driving.

In addition, it is wise to monitor adolescents’ prescription drug use to ensure that such medications are not being misused and/or taken right before or after drinking alcohol. Of course, talking with your teens about the use and consequences of taking drugs can significantly reduce the chances of your teens falling victim to a drugged driving accident.

Hopefully, the increased focus on combating drugged driving will have the same effect on traffic fatality rates as the drunk driving initiatives promoted by MADD and other organizations did. If these efforts are successful, maybe today’s teens won’t need to worry as much about adolescent drugged driving deaths when they become parents themselves.

Concerned about your teenager misusing drugs?  Contact us today for help and guidance.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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