Last updated: January 25, 2021
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), drunk driving was the leading cause of death in auto crashes since national surveys began in the 1970s. Now, alcohol is just another substance that can be involved, found in 29% of the drivers who died in auto accidents in 2016.
Drugged driving is officially more common than alcohol impairment: the GHSA’s 2017 report showed that 43% of fatally-injured drivers tested positive for drugs. Which drugs were involved? The majority of the drugs found in deceased drivers through post-accident testing included opiates, marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and PCP. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, testing for drug-involved driving impacts is changing as the number of substances grows and changes. Hundreds of legal and illegal drugs may impact driving ability.
DOT drug testing now includes opioids
Employers with drivers requiring commercial drivers’ licenses (CDL) are familiar with DOT drug testing, which has been in place since the 1990s. The program’s requirements continue to change as drivers and substances change. Advocacy, education, strict DUI laws, and social pressure have combined to reduce the number of people who drive under the influence of alcohol.
In the words of an NHTSA researcher, “alcohol is alcohol, a single substance.” Hundreds of controlled substances, prescription drugs, and herbal substances could contribute to impaired driving making testing and safety programs a more complex challenge than drunk driving. The negative effects of alcohol on driving performance are well-documented through hundreds of studies. The effects of hundreds of different drugs on driving, from opiates to mental health and heart medications, aren’t as well-researched as alcohol has been.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) added a group of synthetic opiates including hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone, to previously-required substances beginning January 1, 2018. Some common prescription drug names for the synthetic opiates include OcyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and Dilaudid. Other opiates, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and PCP, continue to be included in the DOT drug testing program.
Impact of marijuana legalization, medical use, and decriminalization
In addition to the opioid crisis, two major factors are likely to be contributing to the rise in drugged driving: legalization of medical and adult-use marijuana.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that 8 states and the District of Columbia had legalized adult recreational marijuana as of March, 2018. Another 11 states permit legal use of medical marijuana, and 9 states permit the use of medical marijuana and have also decriminalized adult recreational marijuana. The GHSA’s Executive Director Jonathan Adkins told the Washington Post that “Every state must take steps to reduce drug-impaired driving, regardless of the legal status of marijuana.”
Surveys of legal marijuana users in Colorado and Washington conducted by the GHSA showed that the regular users thought their use of marijuana didn’t impact their driving performance. Some regular users even said they thought that marijuana enhanced their driving abilities. The GHSA surveys didn’t include information about combining marijuana or other drugs with alcohol which has been shown to dramatically impair driving performance.
Colorado’s experience with marijuana legalization and driving does show some troubling, but not surprising trends, however. The Denver Post reported that alcohol-related crashes in Colorado grew 17% between 2013 and 2015. During the same time period, the state saw a 145% increase in the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana.
If an accident does occur
If any driver is involved in a fatal crash, employers must test them for drugs or alcohol, according to the FMCSA. Injuries involving medical treatment and disabling damage to any vehicle requiring towing also require DOT post-accident drug testing. The only circumstance after a CDL driver-involved accident when the employer doesn’t have to test is no injuries suffered and no citation.