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Drunk Driving Down; Drugged Driving Sky High

By Caleb Groos on July 28, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

According to data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a smaller percentage of weekend drivers are drunk, however many of them appear to be on drugs.

Over the last 40 years, the NHTSA has conducted four in-depth roadside surveys into the level of drunkenness on American roadways on weekend evenings. Survey participation is voluntary, and measures drivers in each of the lower 48 states.

Recently, the NHTSA released the results of its fourth such survey, conducted in 2007. For the first time, the study included the testing for a wider variety of impairing drugs beyond alcohol.

The NHTSA has seen a steady decline in the number of drivers with blood alcohol levels over 0.08. Over the 4 decades, the percentage of weekend nighttime drivers over 0.08 has been:

  • 7.5% in 1973;
  • 5.4% in 1986;
  • 4.3% in 1996; and
  • 2.2% in 2007.

So how'd we do on drugs?

To begin with -- this is the first year the NHTSA's study portrays the level of weekend drivers on drugs, so there is not much historical data for comparison. The drugs tested for included illegal drugs, over-the-counter and prescription products, including stimulants, sedatives, antidepressants, marijuana, and narcotic analgesics.

In total, 16.3% of weekend nighttime drivers tested positive for drug use.

The NHTSA warns against reading too much into the 16.3% number. It notes that while a driver's response to alcohol is fairly predictable, there is less predictability when it comes to the effects of many drugs  (along with sustances many consumers don't consider drugs). These drugs can also stay in the body long after their effects on the driver have worn off.

The NHTSA has started a follow on study to better understand how different drugs correlate to crash risks.

The drugs most commonly found in drivers were: marijuana (8.6%), cocaine (3.9%) and methamphetamine (1.3%).

While progress reducing drunk driving is good, thinking that more Saturday night drivers are on coke than booze isn't so reassuring.

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