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Drug-impaired driving makes our roads less safe

July 25, 2019

Partnered with National Safety Council

Alex and Kelly riding inside a Waymo vehicle

We all want to arrive at our destinations safely. As summer vacation season peaks and highways fill with millions of travelers, it is important to continue to be aware of some of the major factors impacting road safety.

Preventable mistakes made by people are a factor in up to 94% of all crashes. Those mistakes include drunk driving, which is still the number one cause of death on our nation’s roadways.

Most of us are aware of the deadly risks of driving drunk. But what about driving on drugs, including prescription medications? Many drugs – both legal and illegal – can impair driving, and people should be aware that drug-impaired driving presents deadly risks for everyone on the road.

Drugs - including opioids and other prescription painkillers, marijuana and cannabis edibles, and even some over-the-counter medicines - can impair driving by affecting judgment, vision, and decision-making ability, and by reducing reaction time.

Even prescription drugs can impair driving

The opioid crisis in America has reached the level of an epidemic. Across the country, nearly 2 million people have opioid use disorders, and millions more use opioids regularly. Each day in the United States, about 130 people die from opioid related overdoses (47,600 people in 2017). Many of these overdoses are from prescription opioid medicines.

Opioids cause sleepiness and respiratory depression, which means they can impair driving, even when taken as prescribed. Mixing them with other drugs and/or alcohol can cause serious health risks and worsen impairment, increasing driving risk.

The National Safety Council recommends that people read all prescription labels carefully, and keep in mind that the warning “do not drive or operate heavy machinery while taking this medication” includes motor vehicles. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other vehicles are complex, heavy machinery, and you should never get behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Driving high is driving impaired

What about marijuana? Can I drive after smoking marijuana? What about vaping or consuming edibles and driving? NSC believes it is not safe to drive after using any form of marijuana in any quantity. As of now, there is no safe minimum threshold of THC use below which it is considered safe to drive. THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, changes how a driver perceives the environment, thinks, plans, and reacts on the road, all of which make for a less attentive, less focused, and ultimately riskier driver.

A measurable number of drug-impaired drivers

roadside survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2014 found that up to 20% of nighttime, weekend drivers surveyed were driving under the influence of drugs or medications that could impair their driving abilities.

The NHTSA roadside survey, which is conducted about every ten years, tested drivers for many types of drugs, including marijuana, stimulants, antidepressants, narcotic analgesics, and sedatives – all of them potentially impairing.

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce drug-impaired driving

Fully self-driving vehicles hold the potential to help reduce drug-impaired driving on our nation’s roadways because these vehicles are always vigilant and never drive under the influence. Waymo's fully self-driving technology is being perfected to constantly scan vehicle surroundings to safely determine the car's next move. This technology will allow the car to see, anticipate, and interact with others on the road in a safe and timely manner. Cars with these capabilities are expected to be an important component in the effort to reduce the number of fatalities on our Nation’s roads from 40,000 per year – to zero.

Learn more about the National Safety Council, a partner of Let’s Talk Self-Driving, and about how self-driving cars can make our roads safer.

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