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Fewer People Are Driving Drunk, But More Are Driving While on Drugs

A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association found that 22 percent of all US drivers are stoned.

by River Donaghey
Sep 30 2015, 8:57pm

Photo via Flickr user Jeff Wilcox

Photo via Flickr user Jeff Wilcox

Read: What's the Safest Way to Get Home When You're Sloshed?

In 1983, according to government data, one in every 80 drivers was arrested for drunk driving in the United States. Today, the number of drivers with alcohol in their bloodstream has declined substantially, thanks in large part to advocacy campaigns, transportation alternatives, stronger state laws, and some truly excellent PSAs.

But while incidents of drunk driving are decreasing, driving under the influence of drugs is becoming more common, according to a report released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Of drivers who are fatally injured in crashes, 40 percent of them test positive for at least one drug—a 29 percent increase since 2005. In a recent roadside survey mentioned in the GHSA report, 22 percent of all drivers tested positive for some kind of drug, most commonly marijuana.

"Drugged driving" is harder to police than drunk driving, since there are hundreds of types of drugs a driver could be tested for, compared to the simple breathalyzer test used to detect alcohol. The crash risk also varies by the type of drug, which can make it harder to create cohesive laws to prevent drugged driving.

The report points to the increase in prescription painkiller use and the legalization of marijuana as factors contributing to the rise of drug-impaired driving. While the public generally regards drunk driving as unacceptable, people tend to be more forgiving of driving while high—to the point where some people even insist that they drive better when they're stoned. (Although studies have proven otherwise).

The association recommends bolstering laws against drugged driving, at both the national and the state level, and conducting more research on drug-impaired driving. Highway safety expert Jim Hedlund, who authored the report, noted that, "while this report summarizes the research and data available, it also highlights how much remains unknown."