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driving on drugs: stats and facts

When we think “impaired driving,” drinking generally springs to mind. But driving while on drugs, even seemingly safe prescription drugs, can be just as dangerous.

Any drugs, from legal prescription meds and over-the-counter (OTC) cold and allergy medications to illicit ones like cocaine, may quickly affect reasoning and motor skills. We'll explain.

Driving on OTC and prescription drugs

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If you've ever taken cold medicine, you know that it can induce sleepiness. That's fine, unless you're hitting the road instead of hitting the hay. A report released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 33 percent of all fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. And since some prescription and OTC drugs have drowsiness, dizziness, or blurred vision as a side effect, it's best to err on the side of caution. Ask your doctor about any potential side effects to see if a particular medicine could impair driving.

Driving on marijuana

Until recently, not much conclusive data existed about the effects of marijuana on driving ability. But a 2013 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse reveals that as many as 14 percent of fatal crashes involve the use of marijuana and that THC is the second-most common drug (after alcohol) found in victims of fatal car accidents.

This statistic isn't surprising since THC (marijuana's active ingredient) is known to cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and delayed reaction times — not good when you have to react quickly to the unpredictability of the road.

Who’s driving on drugs?

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 10.3 million people aged 12 or older (or 3.9 percent of adolescents and adults) reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the previous year. (And who knows how many others drove while medicated on something legal?) Of those surveyed, young drivers age 18 to 25 had the highest reported incidents of drugged driving.

It also turns out that residents of some states are more likely to drive on drugs than those in other states. Citing data from 2006–2009, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the states with the highest rates of drugged driving were Rhode Island, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The states with the lowest rates were Iowa, New Jersey, and Mississippi.

Drugged driving and car accidents

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Research on drugged driving is limited compared to its counterpart, drunk driving. This is likely because it's difficult to measure the correlation between drugs (both legal and illegal) and car accidents. Unlike alcohol, drugs can't be easily detected with a simple breath test, and even in fatal car accidents, drug test results are unavailable for a majority of drivers.

That said, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 18 percent of U.S. drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for legal and illegal drugs in 2009 alone. While this isn't incontestable proof that drugs accounted for the deadly accidents, it does say something about the dangers of driving on drugs itself.

Drugged driving and car insurance

Because of the dangers, it makes sense that all states have strict penalties for those convicted of driving while impaired by a drug. And because drugged driving affects any driver's ability to drive safely, car insurers take note of any prior drugged driving convictions. More risk translates to higher rates.

Related links

Drugged driving laws
The laws surrounding driving on drugs are as varied as they are complicated. Learn all about them here.

The cost of a DUI
Find out how much a DUI conviction could cost. (Hint: it's a pretty penny.)