Alcohol impaired driving has long been a major factor in motor vehicle accidents and fatalities. But a Governors Highway Safety Association study finds that over 50 percent of the fatal crashes involve marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two in the system of the driver. The report’s data is from two sources: NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and NHTSA roadside surveys in the United States and Canada. 

The findings from 2016 (the most recent year of data) found that 44 percent of fatally injured drivers with test results tested positive for marijuana or opioids. This is a marketed 16 percent jump from 28 percent in 2006. The testing results were further broken down with marijuana involved 38 percent of the time and opioids involved 16 percent of the time and positive test for a combination of the two occurred 4 percent of the time.

Driving under the influence of alcohol remains a substantial threat to road safety, but numbers were down slightly from 41 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2016.

Testing challenges and deterrence

Law enforcement has a number of different alcohol test practices at their disposal to determine either by the side of the road or in custody. Drug testing is still evolving, however, because of a number of mitigating issues:

  • Drugs have different effects on different people
  • There are a wide range of drugs to test for
  • There is no nationally acknowledged test so results vary greatly
  • Positive tests may not mean impairment because drugs stay in system longer

Numbers still not concretebut drug use is on the rise

The study’s authors were sure that marijuana was involved in one quarter of all motor vehicle deaths. This is a reflection of the increase in marijuana use in the last 10 years because of legalization and decriminalization. With the opioid epidemic still on the rise and ideally best testing is still down the line, drugs will increasingly be the cause of traffic fatalities.