President’s Message: Drug-Impaired Driving – A Growing Problem

As law enforcement leaders, we have long been speaking out about the dangers of driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol. Far too many of us have witnessed the devastating effects of DUI, responded to horrific crash scenes, and delivered heartbreaking news to parents or loved ones.

While alcohol-impaired driving is still a major concern and responsible for an alarming percentage of traffic deaths each year, drug-impaired driving has become an increasing challenge to public safety on our roadways. A growing body of research is confirming what law enforcement officers and traffic safety experts have suspected for years: many licit, illicit, and over-the-counter drugs impair a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle.

While data focusing on the danger of driving under the influence of alcohol are readily available and often cited, less is known or discussed about the dangers associated with DUI caused by other drugs. Drugs other than alcohol or combined with alcohol have become more prevalent in impaired driving fatal crashes. In a 2011 study, researchers looked at four types of fatal crashes from 14 states and determined that approximately 25 percent of the drivers in those crashes tested positive for drugs.1 This study, which was one of the first to show the prevalence of drug use among fatally injured drivers, provides further evidence of a link between drug use and fatal crashes.

Incidents of DUIs, involving both legal and illegal drugs, are occurring more frequently on U.S. roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 10,000 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes—one every 51 minutes—in 2012. One ongoing issue that has helped fuel the drugged-driving problem is the rising use of illicit drugs in the United States. In 2012, 9.2 percent of U.S. citizens aged 12 and older—an estimated 23.9 million people—admitted using illicit drugs in the prior month—an increase from 8.1 percent in 2008.2 The rise was driven largely by an increase in the use of marijuana, which has steadily increased over time and continues to be the most commonly used illicit drug for persons 12 and older.3 With more states legalizing the use of medical marijuana or allowing the commercial sale of marijuana, we will likely see marijuana use and driving under the influence of marijuana increase as well.

Recently, in my home state of Massachusetts, we lost one of our state troopers, Trooper Thomas Clardy, to a driver who slammed into his vehicle while under the influence of marijuana. The driver was a 30-year-old man who had just left a medical marijuana dispensary and had used his medical marijuana card to purchase joints. The driver tested positive for THC levels in his bloodstream. Trooper Clardy dedicated his life to public service, beginning his career as a state trooper in 2005, after spending 13 years in the armed services. Trooper Clardy’s wife lost her husband, and his children lost their father due to a drug-impaired driver.

While marijuana breathalyzers and other tools to test for marijuana impairment at the roadside are becoming more common research topics, reliable and accurate prototypes are still years away. Urine and blood testing can also be complicated since marijuana is fat soluble and can last in the bloodstream for roughly 30 days, even though a person will experience its effects for, on average, only three–five hours.4 Tolerance to marijuana has also been shown to influence the severity of driver impairment, with more frequent users showing less impairment than infrequent users at the same dosage levels. For these reasons, finding a reliable way for law enforcement to detect marijuana impairment on the road, without mistakenly arresting unimpaired drivers, is a pressing issue for law enforcement today.

To help deter drug-impaired driving and the expected increases in drivers impaired by drugs, especially marijuana, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), working in conjunction with NHTSA, continues to promote and expand drugged driving response training to police officers, prosecutors, and toxicologists. Together, we continue to coordinate the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program (DECP), also referred to as the DRE Program, to administer training focused on the signs, symptoms, and impairment indicators of the DRE seven drug categories—depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetics, narcotic analgesics, inhalants, and cannabis.

We have also developed a list of strategies to help reduce drugged driving. Some of those strategies include expanding education and public awareness on the risks and hazards of potentially driver impairing (PDI) medications, particularly among high-risk groups; expanding the DECP and mandating Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) training for all patrol officers; increasing training and education for law enforcement, prosecutors, toxicologists, judges, and highway safety professionals on the issue of drugged driving; and encouraging all states to enact impaired-driving laws that include “any drug” or “any impairing substance” to help address issues caused by the increase in the creation of impairing substances.

As efforts continue to decriminalize and approve recreational marijuana use in the United States, it is imperative that law enforcement leaders and highway safety advocates not underestimate the impact such actions may have on public health and the adverse impact they will have on highway safety. ♦

1Eduardo Romano and Robert Voas, “Drug and Alcohol Involvement in Four Types of Fatal Crashes,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 72, no. 4 (July 2011): 567–576.
2U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, vol. 1, NSDUH Series H-46 (Rockville, MD: Office of Applied Studies, 2010), (accessed June 14, 2016).
3U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-44 (Rockville, MD.: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2012), 2, (accessed June 14, 2016).
4Fiona J. Couper and Barry K. Logan, “Cannabis/Marijuana,” in Drugs and Human Performance Fact Sheets (NHTSA, April 2014), 10, (accessed June 14, 2016).

Please cite as

Terrence M. Cunningham, “Drug-Impaired Driving–A Growing Problem,” President’s Message, The Police Chief 83 (July 2016): 6–7.