Federal data shows that, of those drivers fatally injured in 2006 traffic crashes who were tested for drugs, 30 percent tested positive. By 2016, that percentage had jumped to 46 percent. Moreover, random roadside testing performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 22 percent of drivers showed some evidence of drug use.
“We really seem to have an epidemic here,” said a National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson.
In today’s world, those drugs are increasingly marijuana and opioids, either of which could be legal under certain circumstances. The fact that the drugs are legal is not a defense to drugged driving in Tennessee and other states, but it does make cases more complicated for prosecutors.
When a driver is found to have any amount of an illegal drug in their system (which includes marijuana in Tennessee), they are considered impaired per se. But people are allowed to have legal drugs like prescription opioids in their systems, so the prosecution has to prove those drugs actually impaired the suspect’s driving in order to make a DUI-drugs charge stick.
The NTSB is calling for additional tools to test for actual impairment. An example would be a Breathalyzer-like device that could detect the exact amount of each drug in the system and, ideally, identify whether that amount corresponds with impairment in the average person. Unfortunately, no such device exists, and the standards for drugged driving liability differ from state to state.
The NTSB’s job is to investigate transportation accidents and to make recommendations about preventing them. It has no authority to create regulations, so it is asking NHTSA to step in and create better tests and improve drug recognition training among law enforcement officers. Specifically, it has asked NHTSA to create specifications for a drugged-driving test that could be used nationwide.
In the meantime, NHTSA is attempting to address the growing problem of drugged driving through public awareness campaigns and public meetings.
People who use prescription drugs need to be aware of whether those drugs could impair their driving. That includes knowing whether they could impair you when you’re tired, when you’re distracted, or when the drugs are mixed with other prescriptions or alcohol. You should only drive when you’re confident your prescription drugs do not pose a risk.