The percentage of traffic fatalities linked to drugged driving in the United States has nearly doubled in just the last ten years, a statistic that is raising concerns at the same time that a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told USA Today that drugs are emerging as a more significant factor as a cause of traffic collisions.

The NHTSA is reporting an increase in the percentage of drivers testing positive for illegal drugs as well as an increase in the percentage of drivers impaired by legal over-the-counter and prescription medications. Exactly what are the statistics regarding drugged driving? In 2015, at least one driver tested positive for drugs in 21 percent of the 31,166 fatal traffic accidents in the United States, an increase of 12 percent over 2005, according to the NHTSA. The percentage of traffic fatalities tied to drugged driving has increased in fourteen of the last fifteen years.

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Experts say that drugged driving statistics are still far below the figures for drunk driving, which is a factor in more than 30 percent of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. every year. While the effect of alcohol on driving has been extensively studied and documented, researchers say that the available data on drugged driving is not comprehensive. What is certain is that any driver in Southern California who is high or impaired by any substance is subject to arrest for driving under the influence and will need the help of an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer.

HOW SERIOUS IS DRUGGED DRIVING?

How serious is drugged driving in the state of California? Rodolfo Alberto Contreras was high on marijuana in Bakersfield in 2014 when he blew through a red light at 80 mph, crossed a center divider, and killed David Aggio, who was driving a Ford Explorer. This summer, Contreras became the first drugged driver in this state to be convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.

“Any impaired driving is a very serious crime,” according to Glenn Davis, Colorado’s Highway Safety Manager. Davis told USA Today it’s “very probable” that Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012 has increased the number of fatal crashes in that state. In 2015, 12.4 percent of the fatal collisions in Colorado involved a driver who tested positive for marijuana alone, representing more than a 50 percent increase in that figure in just two years, according to Colorado Department of Transportation statistics. Drivers in fatal collisions who tested positive for any drug hit a Colorado record high of 18.6 percent in 2015.

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The Drug Policy Alliance is a New York City-based non-profit which supports marijuana legalization. Staff attorney Jolene Forman warns against jumping to conclusions about the impact of cannabis legalization. Ms. Forman told USA Today, “We’re interested in pursuing policies that advance what is empirically shown, rather than knee-jerk, fear-based policies. It’s too soon to say that it’s had a positive or negative effect but preliminary data look very promising. It looks like marijuana legalization has not led to road safety concerns.”

HOW IS DRUGGED DRIVING DIFFERENT FROM DRUNK DRIVING?

However, even gathering data about drugged driving is difficult. In some states, most drivers involved in fatal accidents are not even tested for drugs other than alcohol. And a positive test for marijuana is no proof of impairment – the active ingredient in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), remains in the system for days and sometimes weeks after any sensation of intoxication has faded.

There is nothing comparable for marijuana or any other drug to the field sobriety tests and breathalyzer devices used by law enforcement officers when a driver is suspected of being drunk. And while all fifty states consider a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 percent the “legal limit” for alcohol, there is utterly no agreement about how stoned is too stoned when it comes to marijuana and driving.

However, a study published this summer by the University of Iowa found that drivers with a blood concentration of 13.1 ug/L (micrograms per liter) of THC “showed increased weaving that was similar” to drunk drivers with a blood alcohol content level measuring 0.08 percent. Tim Brown, a co-author of the study, told USA Today, “As we see more people drive on the road with different controlled substances, whether they be illicit or prescription drugs, the risk is increasing.”

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While marijuana may be generally less harmful than some drugs, experts say more study is desperately needed to understand pot’s effect on drivers and driving ability. Colorado’s Highway Safety Manager, Glenn Davis reports, “Sometimes when we interview focus groups, they’re unaware that they can even get a DUI for marijuana, and some people even feel that they can drive better.”

WHAT HAPPENS IF SOMEONE IS SUSPECTED OF DRUGGED DRIVING?

When a California law enforcement officer pulls over a motorist in traffic and suspects that he or she is under the influence of drugs, the officer may summon a Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE) to the location. DREs are police officers trained to recognize impairment in drivers who are high on drugs. If a DRE believes that a driver is impaired by drugs, that driver will be arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs (DUID).

If a suspect charged with DUID goes to trial in Southern California, the DRE will testify, and the suspect will need to be defended by an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer. No one should try to act as his or her own attorney if the charge is DUID. The law is too complicated and too much is at stake. The penalties for a DUID conviction are the same as the penalties for DUI in California. In addition to the considerable financial expense, a first-offense DUID conviction is also punishable by up to six months in jail and a one-year driver’s license suspension.

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Obviously, marijuana is not the only drug raising public safety concerns. Drivers have been arrested in California under the influence of heroin, cocaine, PCP, hydrocodone, and even LSD.  Over-the-counter medications and legal prescription pharmaceuticals can also impair a driver’s abilities. Drugged driving is increasing, and it’s a growing danger to everyone on California’s streets and highways.