Last week, the Governors Highway Safety Association released an update to its 2015 report on drug-impaired driving. As a result, some media coverage of the report has suggested that drugged driving has overtaken drunk driving in terms of traffic fatalities. This interpretation of the data included in the report is incorrect and has the potential to harm MADD’s efforts to strengthen drunk driving laws.
There is no doubt that drugged driving — meaning drugs other than alcohol — is a serious problem. In 2015 MADD expanded our mission to include drug-impaired driving, with a commitment to continue serving victims of both drunk and drugged driving. We know that all victims of impaired driving endure the same devastating consequences, and MADD will always be there to support victims of this 100 percent preventable crime.
In addition, MADD advocates for policies based on research and science to help prevent alcohol and drug-impaired driving. That’s why it’s so important to make sure all data is presented accurately. MADD’s main concern with the report is how the data is being interpreted, as covered in a recent article in The Washington Post. The GHSA report announced that drugs were found in 43 percent of drivers tested in fatal crashes vs. 37 percent in alcohol involved crashes, leading to headlines like this one from CNN: “Drugged driving surpasses drunken driving among drivers killed in crashes, report finds.” The problem is this isn’t true.
- The tests for drugs and alcohol and the data reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) are completely different, so the percentages drawn from that data do not represent an apples to apples comparison.
- In fact, in a 2014 fact sheet, NHTSA cautions against using the FARS drugged driving data “to make inferences about impairment, crash causation, or comparisons to alcohol from this limited data.”
- FARS calculates alcohol-related deaths using blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tests and through statistical models that estimate BACs for drivers missing test results. There is a scientifically demonstrated correlation between the BAC level and impairment.
- There is not a similar way to establish impairment by drugs or apply a similar formula for presence of drugs or drug impairment when a test result is missing. Drug testing procedures also vary considerably by state and even within states.
- Tests for drugs (other than alcohol) are conducted on a limited pool of drivers — often only when presence of drugs is suspected. Therefore, a jurisdiction that tests more drivers may have a higher percentage of drivers who are known to be drug-positive.
- Tests for drugs (other than alcohol) can detect presence of a wide range of drugs, from illegal substances to over the counter and prescribed medications which may or may not have been misused. And unlike alcohol, there is no measure of the amount of the drug.
- The presence of drugs found in a driver’s system does not mean impairment, nor does it imply that drug use was the cause of the crash. Drug tests may not reflect recent use, but use days ago. Currently, there is no way to distinguish presence of drugs and impairment.
- If drivers with any presence of alcohol were considered, the death toll attributed to alcohol use would be even higher.
It’s important to remember that alcohol is a drug. It took decades to learn that the level for illegal alcohol impairment was .08 BAC, and to establish routine tests for BAC in drivers in fatal crashes. The tools for measuring alcohol impairment are well established. The same cannot be said for drug impairment, but that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of drug-impaired driving. MADD will continue to press for research, new laws and development of tools to eliminate — once and for all — the senseless, dangerous and completely preventable crime of driving while impaired by any drug.