By Art Liggio, President, Driving Dynamics
I still can remember the first time I got “high” in a car. I was 16, had just passed my driver’s license test and when I got home, my dad surprised me with the keys to my very first car—a green 1958 English Ford Cortina. Oh boy was that car ugly, but it was mine! I dialed up my buddy (yes, using a rotary telephone) and together we cruised over to the local ice cream parlor in my new ride. The goal, of course, was to impress the girls, and while that didn’t go quite as hoped, it was still a memorable day because it was the first drive in my car. The excitement of owning a car, the independence to go anywhere and the pride of being more grown up gave me an elated feeling—it’s a “high” I’ll never forget.
Today, however, when you hear a story about driving “high” unfortunately it all too often means something very different and much less innocent, and that’s —driving under the influence of drugs.
I’m not here to lecture on the evils of doing drugs but to warn you that drugged driving is an active and real threat to other drivers and passengers—even to pedestrians. We’re witnessing an increasing number of people operating vehicles while they’re under the influence and this challenge to highway safety is more prevalent than we care to admit. Both illegal and abuse of legal prescription drugs are putting more and more drivers at risk every day. The condition becomes especially lethal when drug use is dangerously combined with alcohol consumption. Even proper use of prescription drugs can affect someone’s capacity to drive safely.
The fact is we’re sharing the road with others who have seriously diminished their ability to safely operate a vehicle through the use of drugs. Think about it. Just like you, these individuals are commuting to their jobs, maybe picking their children up from school and going to the grocery store. And then some are also going to locations to buy illicit drugs or perhaps taking extra amounts of prescription meds—then they’re back behind the wheel and headed your way. And unless you’re vigilant and alert to spot erratic driving behaviors and ready to avoid the situation — you’re in the danger zone.
The latest version of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers, released in 2015, found that the number of drivers with alcohol in their system declined by nearly a third since 2007 and by more than 75 percent since the first Roadside Survey in 1973. However, that same survey found a large increase in the number of drivers using marijuana or other illegal drugs. In the 2014 survey, nearly one in four drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could affect safety, with marijuana use showing the greatest spike at an increase of 48 percent. Another alarming statistic—drivers killed in crashes who test positive for marijuana use are up to 6.6 times more likely to have caused the crash.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research, just one year after the State of Washington legalized cannabis (marijuana) for recreational use, the number of fatal crashes involving drivers that used marijuana more than doubled—from 8 percent to 17 percent. In other words, one in six Washington drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for active THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound in the cannabis plant responsible for a euphoric high. In the years preceding the change in law, the percentage of marijuana-related crashes remained relatively flat. Now, more states have or are planning to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. If the related statistics hold true, this societal change will have a significant impact on our safety behind-the-wheel.
Again, my purpose is not to lecture, but to urge us all to stay alert to abnormal driving patterns that may be as a result of drug use or any other behavior-altering factor, and then keep clear of the potential risk. Don’t assume that everyone with whom you share the road has a clear head or is in full control of all their senses.
By the way, my ‘58 Cortina literally died in the driveway a few months after I got it. The engine refused to turn over so after a quick prayer (maybe a curse) for the departed, the car headed to the junk yard. Then I was back to using two-wheeled pedal power—how embarrassing for a teenager. Fortunately, that was only for six months until I was able to scrape together enough money to buy a VW Bug. Man was I cool in that groovy ride!
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