Out of all drugs, alcohol is still the biggest threat on the roads

June 22, 2017

When it comes to impaired driving, alcohol remains the biggest threat. A third of all drivers who die in crashes in the U.S. have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. That proportion hasn't budged since 1994. Nearly 7,000 deaths could have been prevented in 2015 if all drivers were below the legal limit, IIHS estimates.

"The battle against alcohol-impaired driving isn't won," says Adrian Lund, IIHS president. "States and localities should keep channeling resources into proven countermeasures to deter impaired driving, such as sobriety checkpoints."

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) in April reported that "drugs were present in 43 percent of the fatally-injured drivers with known test results, appearing more frequently than alcohol." The finding was based on 2015 data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a census of fatal crashes on U.S. roads. The report, sponsored by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility — a group funded by distillers — highlighted the top-line overall drug-prevalence percentage, which included marijuana but also amphetamines and other drugs. Marijuana in some form accounted for about 36 percent of the identified drugs, while 37 percent of drivers had a positive BAC test. Some journalists interpreted the findings as implying that drugs are now a bigger problem than alcohol on U.S. roads.

"Among all drugs, alcohol is still the biggest contributor to fatal crashes," Lund says. He cautions that FARS data aren't a reliable indicator of the overall presence of drugs other than alcohol among drivers or of drivers' level of impairment. He also warns against conflating the increased prevalence of drivers testing positive for marijuana or drivers self-reporting marijuana use with the recent rise in fatal crashes in the U.S., which is largely due to an improved economy (see "Higher driver death rate is a downside of economic recovery," May 25, 2017).

GHSA noted that "drugged driving is more complicated than drunk driving" and called on states to increase training for law enforcement officers to help them identify and arrest drivers under the influence of drugs.

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