The Risks of Driving While High on Drugs

driving while on drugs

We all know that it's bad to drink and drive. Every day, approximately 28 people in the United States die in car accidents that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. Drinking affects our judgment, results in poor coordination, and slows our reaction time – making it very hard to see, steer, brake, and generally control, a moving vehicle.

Drunk driving is a top-of-mind crime for many of us – but what about driving after taking prescription pills, smoking marijuana, or using other drugs? Do those really impact our ability to drive a car? Can you get arrested for driving while high or under the influence of drugs?

Many people believe that they function fine on drugs. This is especially true for teens and young adults, who, because of their brain progress, do not always think rationally, foresee negative consequences, or exercise self-control. Poor decision-making is common in adolescence and before age 25. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a higher percentage of young adults aged 18 to 25 choose to drive after taking drugs or drinking than do adults 26 or older.

Unfortunately, this choice is made by millions. And it does have detrimental consequences on the road. In the year 2016, almost 12 million people in the United States (over the age of 16) drove a vehicle under the influence of illicit drugs. And according to the CDC, about 16 percent of motor vehicle crashes involve a driver who is high on drugs.

As a parent, guardian, educator, or clinician, it is important to know the dangers of driving while high, and to understand the ways in which drugs can affect our ability to operate a vehicle safely. Drugs affect our bodies and brains in ways very similar to alcohol. And because teens and young adults are less experienced drivers (due to their age), it is very important to keep them as safe as possible behind the wheel. To help promote sobriety on the road, Turnbridge outlines the risks of drugged driving below.

How Do Drugs Impair Driving?

The effects of substance use vary, depending on your drug of choice. However, it is safe to assume that drugs can disrupt your ability to drive in similar ways that alcohol can. And that you should not get behind the wheel after taking any mind-altering substance – even those prescription painkillers that the doctor prescribed. This is because drugs affect our brain, which controls the rest of what we do.

Here are some examples of the ways in which specific drugs can impair our brains and driving skills:

  • Marijuana slows a person’s reaction time, impairs their judgement of time and distance, and decreases balance and coordination. Sometimes, marijuana also causes anxiety in users.
  • Methamphetamine, cocaine, and other stimulant drugs can cause users to be very aggressive and reckless when driving. This is because stimulants often lead to erratic, violent, and manic behavior – which can enhance a person’s “road rage” to an even more destructive degree.
  • Opioids such as prescription painkillers can cause drowsiness as well as fleeting moments of euphoria, disrupting users’ ability to think clearly, react quickly, and make rational choices. Those who use opioid drugs also run the risk of slowed breathing and respiratory depression, which can extremely dangerous while on the road.
  • Depressants – including sedatives, tranquilizers, and benzos like Xanax – can cause dizziness and drowsiness in drivers. These drugs can also lead to problems with movement and concentration, as well as slurred speech and confusion.

All these impairments can lead to car crashes.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “It is difficult to determine how specific drugs affect driving because people tend to mix various substances, including alcohol.” Marijuana and alcohol, or alcohol and party pills, often go hand-in-hand. But, the NIDA states, “we do know that even small amounts of some drugs can have a measurable effect.”

Can You Get in Trouble for Driving While High?

Many states today have zero-tolerance laws for drugged driving: This means that a person can face charges for driving under the influence (DUI) if he or she has any amount of drug in the blood or urine. Six states today have Per Se laws, which make it illegal to drive with certain amounts of specified drugs in their system (limits are set by the state).

In short, the answer is yes. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, every state has laws that address alcohol-impaired driving and drug-impaired driving.

Driving While High on Marijuana: Is it Really an Issue?

In addition to many states outlawing driving while high on marijuana, there are many dangers associated with driving after smoking pot. Research shows that marijuana users are about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use. Other studies have reported that drivers with THC in their blood were twice as likely to be responsible for a deadly car crash or to be killed by drivers who hadn’t used drugs or alcohol.

Marijuana has many negative effects on a person’s ability to drive. In addition to slowed reaction time and an impaired perception of distance, drivers who are “high” on marijuana are more likely to weave in their lanes and less likely to pay attention to the road. Combined with alcohol, these effects are exacerbated.

Yet driving after smoking weed is still a common occurrence. Our kids are still hitting the road after hitting bongs, joints, and spliffs. Many are getting behind the wheel at night, on weekends, when the risks of drunk-driving are highest. The CDC reports that more than 1 in 10 night-time, weekend drivers have marijuana in their systems.

Some of our kids are even smoking marijuana while driving. Often called a clambake, hotbox, or joyrides, these trips consist of smoking weed in a car with the windows up, so that the smoke can then be re-inhaled and the high be reinforced.

Marijuana is the drug most often detected in drivers who have crashed, after alcohol.

We need to be the driving force that prevents our children from getting behind the wheel while high on any substance – marijuana, prescription painkillers, Xanax, and cocaine are just a few that can impair a person’s ability to control a car. We need to communicate with our teens about the dangers of driving while high. We need to know which signs to look for and how to tell when a person is high on drugs.

If drugged driving continues to be a problem for your loved one, you may consider getting professional help. Driving while high, defensiveness, and continued use of drugs (despite the negative consequences) are tell-tale signs that a drug problem exists.

Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn about our drug rehab facilities for adolescents and young adults.