Drug-Impaired Driving: The Effects of Marijuana and Opioids

A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association found that in 2016, more than 40% of drivers who were fatally injured in car accidents tested positive for drug-impaired driving.

Close to 40% of those drivers tested positive for marijuana, and another 16% tested positive for opioids. 4% tested positive for a combination of marijuana and opioids.

Drunk driving remains a serious traffic safety concern, but research has shown that the incidence of fatally-injured drivers with alcohol in their system at the time of a crash is on the decline.

On the other hand, drug-impaired driving accidents are on the rise.

Here’s what you need to know about drug use, how it affects driving, and how to protect your teen driver from making dangerous decisions regarding drug-impaired driving.


How Marijuana Affects Driving

Many people, including teenagers, think of marijuana as a harmless drug.

And as more states legalize the drug for both medical and recreational purposes, it’s likely that attitude will continue to spread. But even if you don’t believe that marijuana is harmful in and of itself, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drive while under the influence of marijuana.

It can be difficult to pin down the exact effect that marijuana has on traffic accidents.

That’s because marijuana can be detected in blood or other bodily fluids days or weeks after use, so it can be difficult to tell when someone is driving under the influence, as opposed to when somebody simply has marijuana remaining in their system due to previous use.

However, it is known that while under the influence of marijuana, drug-impaired drivers experience impaired motor coordination, impaired judgment, and decreased reaction time. It stands to reason that these effects of marijuana would negatively impact driving ability and behavior.

Teens, who have more limited driving experience and judgment anyway, are likely to be even more heavily impacted by marijuana use before driving, and therefore at greater risk of accidents.


How Opioids Affect Driving

If you’ve been paying attention to the news coverage of the country’s growing opioid crisis, you may realize that prescription opioids can be dangerous. But sometimes people believe that opioids are prescribed by doctors, that they may be safe to take while driving.

Even when people obtain opioids by illegal means, they may believe that because the pills are made in a lab and sold by pharmacies, they’re safe to take. But driving under the influence of opioids can be very dangerous.

Opioids impair motor control and coordination. They can also cause drowsiness. That means that someone under the influence of opioids could fall asleep at the wheel, which can easily lead to a dangerous accident. Additionally, opioids impair memory, judgment, and thinking skills.

Even people taking a valid prescription for opioids should refrain from driving while they’re feeling the effects of the drug, and prescription bottles carry warning labels to that effect. When it comes to opioids taken recreationally and illegally, it’s even more important to avoid drug-impaired driving.

The combination of opioids and marijuana can have unpredictable effects. Combining the two types of drugs can intensify the effects of one or both of them, creating even more danger when driving.


Talking to Teenagers About Drug-Impaired Driving

Thanks in part to the efforts of schools and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), many of today’s teens have gotten the message that driving drunk can be dangerous, and today’s teens are less likely to drive drunk than teens from previous generations.

However, it’s important to talk to your teen about the dangers of drugged driving.

It can be difficult to approach the subject of drug use with teenagers. But you can talk to your teen about drugged driving in the context of general driving safety.

The time when teenagers first get their license and begin driving is an exciting time for them, but it’s a scary time for parents. It’s important to talk to your teen about all kinds of driving safety matters, and during these conversations, you can talk to your teen about the importance of getting a ride if they decide to experiment with drugs like marijuana or opioids.

When you talk to your teen about the dangers of drug-impaired driving, you want to emphasize that your teen can always call home for a ride if they can’t safely drive themselves home. It’s fine to stress that you don’t want your teen to do drugs at all, but the important thing in this conversation is to make sure that your teen can get home safely if they do experiment with drugs.

You can tell your teen that if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can call you and you will pick them up, no questions asked. That doesn’t mean that you can’t discipline them or discuss their behavior later, but your teen will be more likely to call you for a ride when necessary if they know they’re not immediately going to get into trouble for admitting that they need a ride.

You can use a parent/teen driving contract, such as this one offered by the CDC, to create a formal agreement between yourself and your teen about how to handle these situations.


Drug and Alcohol Courses

Another way to help ensure that your teenager practices safety when it comes to drugs is to enroll your teen in a drug and alcohol education course.

In many cases, teens are required to take a course or pass a test about drug and alcohol safety before they can receive their driver’s license.

Many drivers education courses, including both private driving schools and courses offered by public high schools, offer drug and alcohol education classes or coursework.

You can also find drug and alcohol education courses offered separately in many places online or through teen counseling centers and drug counseling centers in your community.

Teens who are educated about the risks of drug use and the dangers of drugged driving are in a better position to make good decisions about their safety.