HIGHway to the danger zone: Driving under the influence
The month of December is often packed with parties coupled with bad winter weather, which can be a fatal combination for those who decide to get behind the wheel and head home high or intoxicated. It also happens to be National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, a perfect opportunity to raise awareness about the risks of impaired driving and what can be done to prevent it.
Did you know that about 30 people a day in the U.S. die in motor vehicle crashes in which the driver was impaired by alcohol? Or that up to 14% of drivers injured or killed in a car crash test positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana?
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among new drivers – those aged 16 to 19. And the risk of a new driver dying in a car crash is three times higher compared to more experienced drivers. When alcohol is introduced into the equation, which it is for 1 in 10 high school students who admit to having driven a car in the past month while under the influence of alcohol, the risk is tremendously magnified: drivers under 21 years old are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash if they are under the influence of alcohol than if they haven’t been drinking at all.
Driving While High on Marijuana is Not Safe
There is a common misconception that driving under the influence of marijuana is “safe.” Because of this, high school and college students are now more likely to drive or ride with a driver who is under the influence of marijuana than alcohol. Any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream doubles the risk of a car crash. Even when ingested in relatively small amounts, marijuana, just like alcohol, impairs the brain functions that are essential for safe driving, like attention, judgment, coordination and reaction time.
Curbing the Problem: What Can We Do?
As laws surrounding marijuana use become more liberalized, policymakers, educators, parents and the media must be careful not to downplay the risks of driving while under its influence or the influence of alcohol. Health care providers should help educate patients about the risks of impaired driving and offer help to those who screen positive for substance use. All adults should model safe driving behavior and responsible alcohol use. And young people should look out for themselves and their friends and take reasonable steps to avoid having a good time turn into a tragedy.
When it comes to impaired driving, laws regarding its prevention and enforcement vary significantly among states. They are determined in large part by a region’s culture and norms surrounding drinking and the legal status of recreational marijuana use. But regardless of political leaning, personal attitudes about drug policy, or an individual’s level of physical tolerance for alcohol or other drugs, impaired driving not only puts drivers and their own passengers at risk, but also anyone who might be unlucky enough to cross their path. As we approach the holiday season, let’s not allow more families and friendships to be destroyed by tragic car crashes and deaths due to impaired driving.
Linda Richter, PhD
Linda Richter is Director of Policy Research and Analysis