11 Aug Drugs and Alcohol: Their Relative Crash Risk
Alcohol and drugs are known for their ability to produce impairments that can seriously reduce a person’s ability to safely operate a car, truck or motorcycle. Each year, significant numbers of people under the influence of alcohol or drugs are involved in some sort of motor vehicle accident. In a study published in January 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a team of American researchers compared the chances that a driver under the influence of drugs will get involved in a fatal car crash to the chances that a driver under the influence of alcohol will get involved in such a crash.
Alcohol and numerous legal and illegal drugs can produce a range of body changes that decrease the ability to operate a motor vehicle in one way or another. Examples of these changes include a reduced capacity to control or coordinate muscle movements, a reduced capacity to maintain normal body balance, a reduced aptitude for sensing important changes in the surrounding environment, a reduced chance of reacting appropriately to any changes that occur, a diminished capacity to focus or pay attention and a diminished capacity to think rationally and make appropriate judgments or decisions. In recognition of the dangers associated with driving under the influence, jurisdictions throughout the U.S. maintain laws that are designed to deter alcohol and/or drug use in drivers. In all 50 states, people with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher are subject to arrest for driving while intoxicated. Some states maintain a zero-tolerance policy for drugged driving, while others rely on an impairment standard similar to the standard used to detect drunk drivers.
Fatal Crash Statistics
Figures compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that roughly 29 people die in the U.S. each day in a motor vehicle accident involving a driver under the influence of alcohol. When extended across an entire year, this rate of loss of life accounts for 31 percent of all motor vehicle-related deaths throughout the country. Teenagers and young adults are significantly more likely than older adults to play a part in an alcohol-related crash. For a number of reasons, public health officials don’t know for sure how many people die in drug-related motor vehicle accidents each year. However, a 2009 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that roughly 18 percent of all drivers who die in crashes have some sort of drug or medication in their systems. The drugs most likely to appear in the bloodstreams of drivers include marijuana, amphetamine, cocaine, opioid narcotics and sedative substances called benzodiazepines.
In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from North Carolina State University and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation used information from a federal program called the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to compare the risks for getting involved in a fatal crash while drinking alcohol to the risks for getting involved in a fatal crash while using various drugs. Each year, FARS gathers data on motor vehicle fatalities from all 50 states, as well as from Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. In order to get a broad perspective, the researchers relied on data from three separate years: 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The researchers confirmed the impact that alcohol use and drug use have on the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident. They concluded that the single biggest risk comes from the consumption of alcohol. However, they also noted that people who drive under the influence of drugs also have increased fatality risks, whether or not they simultaneously consume alcohol. When they looked at the relative impact of driving under the influence of different drugs, the researchers concluded that marijuana use typically does not substantially add to overall fatality odds. However, they concluded that the use/abuse of all other mind-altering drugs and medications does add significantly to fatality risks.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs specifically note that the fatality risks associated with driving under the influence of alcohol apparently far outweigh the fatality risks associated with driving under the influence of drugs. Based on this finding, they caution public health officials against focusing too much attention on addressing drugged driving and too little attention on addressing drunk driving.
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