Drugged Driving Surpasses Drunk Driving Accident Rates

man driving under influence

A recent study released in April by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported that drivers who were involved in a fatal car accident caused by drugs has surpassed the percentage impaired by alcohol. Also, in a roadside study, they found that around 15% tested positive for some illegal drug or marijuana. And of that 15%, a good percentage were found to be intoxicated on a combination of two or more drugs, such as marijuana and opioids.

Last year California voted similarly to several other western states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, with Proposition 64. Several states have followed a similar path, initially requiring a medical prescription, then voting to legalize the age-restricted sale and possession of marijuana similar to alcohol sales and possession.

These states are now seeing an increase in “drugged driving”, which is illegal in California whether or not possession of the drug itself is legal.

Sacramento Drugged Driving Fatality Fuels Concern

A tragic DUI accident occurred earlier this year when a father of four was struck while changing a tire along I-80 outside of Sacramento. The driver was suspected of being under the influence of marijuana and was arrested for vehicular manslaughter. Law enforcement officers fear this type of accident caused by drugs will become more common with Prop 64 taking effect earlier this year and California “will become the world’s largest cannabis market.”

Besides marijuana, there is a widening variety of intoxicating substances available which are increasingly showing up in toxicology tests after car accidents and DUI arrests. There is virtually no restraint from gaining access to any intoxicant from anywhere else on the globe — with enough money, and if the law is on their side.

Is Marijuana the New Beer?

Alcohol consumption has had a tumultuous history in America. At the country’s founding, many people drank beer throughout the day because beer was safer to drink than polluted water.

There was once a town in Texas known locally as “two beers from Houston.” The state long defied convention by creating a need for “open-container” terminology in the first place by allowing passengers to imbibe during long Texas road trips.

Those renegade days are now long gone. The Texas state DUI law finally fell in line with Federal standards as late as 2001, after the threat of losing highway funds.

But with marijuana, we’re now on the wave of allowing another intoxicant to be an open and accepted aspect of social life, much like alcohol, and there are a lot of unknowns about that. 

The nation is at a crossroads with the legalization and enforcement of public intoxicants.

Owning Pot May be Legal; Driving High is Not

Laws for very strict DUI penalties have been in place for years everywhere in the nation (even Texas), and in California, a single DUI accident or arrest includes a mandatory 48 hours in jail and payment of substantial fines.

It doesn’t matter if the driver was under the influence of alcohol, prescription drugs, marijuana, or anything else; he or she is responsible for facing the consequences.

Teen Drunk Driving Fatalities are Down

The good news is that drunk driving fatalities overall have been going down. There has been a strong public awareness campaign against drinking and driving — especially for teens, who are statistically much more likely to have an injury accident than the average driver, even without adding inebriation from alcohol or drugs.

Since 1982, drunk driving fatalities have fallen 80% among this group, those 21 and younger. MADD, an organization that began in Sacramento, can take much of the credit.

The DUI media campaigns created awareness for the “designated driver,” so that many young people at this point have grown up in the mindset that driving while drunk is needlessly foolish when so many options are available, including paid (sober) drivers who can prevent teen car accidents by meeting a client and driving them home.

How Drunk Driving is Detected

Mental and physical effects of alcohol (poisoning, really) happen fairly fast — within minutes, where an average person can consume a typical serving and within half an hour begin showing mild signs of difficulty walking straight. The effects are temporary and dissipate in correlation to how much was consumed.

So enforcement of DUI laws were historically measured and verified by the abundance of visual cues of intoxication: disorientation, slurred speech, and by a distinctive smell of alcohol on the person or in the vehicle.

But for an accurate measurement of alcohol use — beside measuring alcohol levels in one’s blood or urine — the ubiquitous roadside breath test, the breathalyzer, is law enforcement’s main gauge.

When the breathalyzer was first introduced, there was an oppositional movement by citizens concerned with privacy who fought the implementation of its use; but now, refusing to take either the blood, urine or breath test in California results in an immediate one-year driver’s license suspension.

How is DUI of Drugs Determined?

Marijuana and opiate use don’t necessarily present similar physical impairments as alcohol use, where reaction time is drastically reduced, vision becomes blurred and leads to “double-vision,” and those intoxicated can find it difficult to get their limbs to cooperate, or even to speak coherently. Odd behavior does occasionally arouse suspicion, and those placed under DUI arrest are given conclusive blood tests.

Police have begun distributing a roadside measurement tool in order to gauge the presence of substances with a mouth swab. But unlike the breathalyzer, which measures a driver’s intoxicant level and ability to drive, the only roadside testing systems now available have some serious drawbacks as a measurement tool.

The latest versions are really more a measurement of recent drug-use history. In most cases, it registers a positive for a person having consumed most substances anytime within the last 24 hours.


The drug tests under consideration so far register cocaine use to within a day, and opiates, as far out as 2 to 4 days. Additionally, there is little consensus on what amount of various drugs determines “under the influence” as most drugs affect people differently.

In fact, the testing procedure in place in San Diego is basically a pre-check; those registering positive are required to undergo a further blood test.  

DUI Accident Victims Should Seek Expert Advice

As of now, there is a lot of gray area between recording the recent history of drug use that the roadside tests are capable of, and the level of impairment affecting one’s ability to drive a car. If you were the victim of a drugged driving accident, it’s important to select a car accident attorney who is up to date on current California DUI laws.

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