Despite a decline in alcohol-impaired driving—fatalities fell 53% from 1982 to 2015—U.S. roadways aren’t necessarily safer.
That’s because as drinking and driving has fallen, driving after using marijuana or other drugs seems to be on the rise. Drug use among fatally injured drivers who were tested for drugs rose from 25% in 2007 to 42% in 2016, and marijuana presence doubled in that time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Trying to reduce the number of impaired drivers is just getting a little bit more complicated, because we keep increasing the number of things that we’re looking for and we’re fighting against.” —Timothy Kerns, director, Maryland Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office
“Trying to reduce the number of impaired drivers is just getting a little bit more complicated, because we keep increasing the number of things that we’re looking for and we’re fighting against,” Timothy Kerns, director of the Maryland Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office, told a drugged-driving session at NCSL Base Camp 2021. “It’s like we’re retaking ground we’ve already taken with alcohol. Now we have to go back and retake this ground with drugs.”
The session, titled “Drugged Driving: What’s a State to Do?” was moderated by Samantha Bloch, an NCSL senior policy specialist.
Part of the complication is that, increasingly, impaired drivers are under the influence of more than just a single substance, a phenomenon known as polysubstance-impaired driving that seems to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Among impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington state, most have more than a single substance in their systems, Staci Hoff, research director with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, told the attendees. “If you’re in a fatal crash and you’re impaired, it’s most likely by multiple substances,” she said.
Data collection is key to determining the prevalence of drugged driving and reducing its impact on public safety. In addition to toxicology reports that indicate the drugs a driver has used, Washington has relied on a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and crash record case reviews, Hoff said.
From one survey, for example, Washington officials learned that 22% of adults reported driving within two hours of consuming alcohol, 15% reported driving within two hours of consuming cannabis and 9% said they had driven within two hours of consuming both.
To reduce drug-impaired driving, both panelists cited the value of the Drug-Impaired Driving Criminal Justice Evaluation Tool, developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help states identify the strengths of their impaired-driving programs and the areas where improvement is needed.
The NHTSA tool can help states assess and strengthen drug-impaired driving programs at a variety of levels, Kerns said. The assessment is composed of 10 sections, including law enforcement, prosecution, the courts, community supervision, toxicology, treatment, emergency medical services, data collection, communications and legislation. It can be sent by category to officials who evaluate their performance and areas of need.
Among the questions for lawmakers to consider:
- Does your state have separate statutes for alcohol-, drug- and polysubstance-impaired driving?
- Does your state have a zero-tolerance law for drivers under age 21 for drug-impaired driving?
- Does your state have an open container law making it illegal to drive with drugs in the passenger area?
- Do your statutes allow for drug testing using blood, urine and oral fluids?
- Has your state adopted model toxicological testing standards?
“Impaired driving is very complex,” Kerns said. “Each of the categories included in the assessment tool contributes to the reduction of impaired driving.” The tool can help you identify problems and evaluate your programs.
As experience has shown in Maryland, Washington and other states, addressing drugged driving requires a team effort and a multidisciplinary approach.
“You just can’t have safety advocates,” Kerns said. You must have legislators and staff, along with people from the law enforcement and treatment communities, on board.
“Maybe more importantly, you have to involve the court system as well,” he said. “The more that you can educate prosecutors and judges, the better you’ll be able to move forward with your program.”
Kerns said the program assessment took about a month in Maryland. What it gave stakeholders was a “better idea of the big picture.”
For more information on the topics discussed in the session, see the following resources:
Kevin Frazzini is a senior editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.