drugged driving

Drugged Driving Kills

In 2013, a national survey reported that 9.9 million Americans admitted to driving while under the influence of illicit drugs during the previous year.[6] Driving and drugs do not mix. Close to 4,000 drivers who were fatally injured in a motor vehicle accident in 2009 tested positive for drugs.[7]

Young drivers may be particularly at risk for driving while impaired as one study published that one in 12 high school seniors reported driving under the influence of marijuana in the two weeks before the survey, close to one in four drugged drivers who died in motor vehicle crashes were under age 25, and almost half of all motor vehicle fatalities testing positive for marijuana were also under age 25.[8] Drivers may not always be drug tested when they die in a car crash, but of those who are, as many as one in three drivers who die in a motor vehicle accident test positive for some form of drugs.[9]

Signs of Impairment

Common illicit and prescription drugs with mind-altering effects are split up into seven categories in order to better illustrate how they will affect people and what to look for when attempting to spot impairment.

Drug categories and common symptoms of impairment include:

Cannabis: marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids

Central nervous system depressants: benzodiazepine sedatives and tranquilizers, like Xanax and Valium, barbiturates, GHB and alcohol

Inhalants: volatile solvents, including toluene, rubber cement, acetone, and gasoline; aerosols, such as hair spray and deodorizing spray; and medical gasses, like amyl and butyl nitrate, huffed or inhaled for the purpose of getting high

  • Hallucinations
  • Watery and bloodshot eyes
  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Inattentiveness
  • Distorted time and distance perceptions
  • Elevated or lowered pulse, depending on substance
  • Flaccid muscle tone
  • Inability to cross eyes
  • Horizontal or vertical gaze nystagmus
  • Pupils slow to react to light
  • Poor concentration
  • Impaired cognitive and memory functions
Dissociative anesthetics: PCP, ketamine and dextromethorphan (DXM)

Narcotic analgesics: opioids, including heroin, methadone, Vicodin, OxyContin, codeine, morphine and fentanyl

Drug Recognition Experts (DRE)

Drug Recognition Experts

Currently, all 50 states have implemented Drug Evaluation and Classification Programs (DEC) to train law enforcement officials on how to recognize and classify drug-impaired driving.[10] These officers undergo intense training programs in order to become a drug recognition expert, or DRE, who can then recognize each of the seven drug categories and signs of impairment. Since there is not a drug equivalent to an alcohol breathalyzer test, states and law enforcement officials instead rely on the testimony of a DRE in drug-related driving incidents.

If you are a suspect in a driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) case, DREs have a methodical, systematic, and standardized assessment protocol to determine if you are in fact impaired, if the impairment may be related to a medical condition, and what category, or categories, of drugs caused the impairment. The training process helps DRE candidates to observe symptoms and certain criteria of drug impairment that are standardized and known to be reliable indicators of drug impairment. Margin of error is reduced by the standard nature, wherein the assessments are done the same way for every DUID suspect every time.

DREs have a 12 step process they undergo when determining drugged driving incidents:

  • 1. Breath Alcohol Test (BrAC) is performed to rule out alcohol intoxication.
  • 2. Arresting officer is interviewed to determine behavior, presence of drugs or paraphernalia, driving functions, and potential statements concerning drug use or abuse that led him to suspect impairment.
  • 3. A preliminary exam checks pulse and the person’s health to ensure there is not a medical condition causing the symptoms. A DRE will make observations on pupil size and reaction and ability to track a moving object, and look for physical signs of impairment, including coordination and behaviors. A series of health questions will be asked. If a medical condition is not determined to be involved, the evaluation moves forward.
  • 4. The DRE then evaluates the eyes to look for the ability to converge eyes on bridge of nose (i.e., cross them) as well as for horizontal and vertical gaze nystagmus.
  • 5. Four psychophysical tests are then performed: Walk and Turn, Finger to Nose, Romberg Balance, and One Leg Stand Test. These tests can determine if divided attention and motor skills are impaired.
  • 6. A vital signs test is performed, testing blood pressure, pulse, and body temperature, as irregularities can indicate drug impairment. This is the second time pulse is taken.
  • 7. A pupilometer is used to test the eyes under three different lighting conditions, as pupil dilation and reaction to light are evaluated. These can indicate drug impairment and help narrow down the drug category involved. Mouth and nose are also inspected for signs of drug use.
  • 8. Skeletal muscle tone is evaluated since some drugs cause differing levels of muscle flaccidity or rigidity.
  • 9. The DRE searches for evidence of injection drug abuse by looking for injection sites on the body. Pulse is taken for the third time. Pulse is taken multiple times to account for nervousness or other factors that may cause irregularities.
  • 10. Miranda rights may be read at this point, and the DRE will ask further questions relating to drug use.
  • 11. The DRE makes a determination on drug impairment based on his training, observations, and the DRE Drug Symptomology Matrix.
  • 12. If a DRE determines drugs are the cause of impairment, then a blood, urine, or saliva drug test is ordered via a toxicology lab analysis.[11]

Drug Recognition Experts

A DRE must undergo rigorous training in three separate phases, including DRE Pre-school, DRE School and 12 supervised DRE evaluations in order to become certified. They must be able to successfully predict drug impairment at least 75 percent of the time and pass multiple examinations and assessments to become an official drug recognition expert.[12]

Legal Troubles

Driving while under the influence of drugs can land you in the morgue, hospital, or jail. In addition to DEC programs and certified DREs in place, 19 states also have per se laws that make it illegal to have any amount of prohibited drugs or substances in your system while operating a motor vehicle, regardless of your level of impairment.[13] This is called zero tolerance.

Most states consider drug- or alcohol-impaired driving offenses as a DUI, or driving under the influence, offense. California, Hawaii and New York actually have separate laws for driving under the influence of alcohol, under the influence of drugs, or under the influence of a combination of the two.[14]

The penalties for a DUI differ from state to state and may include revoking or suspending your license, drug or alcohol education classes, therapy, a probation period, fines, a period of imprisonment, or a combination of these penalties. If you refuse to complete field sobriety or drug tests, you may immediately lose your license for up to a year and have to go to trial. Multiple offenses also increase the consequences.

Unlike alcohol, which can be measured in the bloodstream to determine current levels of impairment [e.g., 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC)], drugs may remain detectable by a blood or urine test for several days, depending on the type of drug used. This can make it more difficult to determine actual levels of impairment while driving or when arrested for driving under the influence. Zero-tolerance laws don’t allow for any level of illicit drugs in your system. Drug-impaired driving may be determined by a DRE in states that require sufficient evidence of impairment for a guilty verdict. Currently, there are no standard federal regulations regarding drugged driving offenses.

A 2003 study of seriously injured drivers found that more than half of the patients treated in a Maryland trauma center had drugs other than alcohol in their systems at the time of admittance.[15] Marijuana was present in 26.9 percent of the crash victims. In addition, 11.6 percent of them tested positive for cocaine, 11.2 percent for benzodiazepines, and 10.2 percent tested positive for opioids and other prescription drugs, while 25 percent involved alcohol and other drugs together.[16]

Drugs and driving make up a dangerous combination that often brings tragic results. Drugs influence mental and visual capacities and the brain’s ability to process information correctly. Most prescription medication bottles will have a label on them indicating that you should not operate heavy machinery or a motor vehicle while taking them.

Keep you and your loved ones safe by avoiding driving while impaired, and do not ride with someone who is under the influence of drugs. Prevention is key.


[1] (Dec. 2012). “Fact Sheet: Reducing Drugged Driving and Protecting Public Health Safety.” Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Accessed June 1, 2015.

[2] Reuters. (Feb. 2015). “Drivers Under the Influence of Drugs Now Outnumber Those Who are Drunk.” Business Insider. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Dec. 2014). “DrugFacts: Drugged Driving.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 1, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] (2014). “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed June 1, 2015.

[7] (n.d.) “Drugged Driving.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD), Inc. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[8] (n.d.) “Drugged Driving.” Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Accessed June 1, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] (June 2015). “Drug Impaired Driving Laws.” Governors Highway Safety Association. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[11] (n.d.) “Drug Recognition Experts (DRE): The DRE Protocol.” The International Drug Evaluation and Classification Program. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[12] (n.d.) “Drug Recognition Experts (DRE): How do I Become a DRE?” The International Drug Evaluation and Classification Program. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[13] (June 2015). “Drug Impaired Driving Laws.” Governors Highway Safety Association. Accessed June 1, 2015.

[14] Ibid.

[15] (Dec. 2014). “DrugFacts: Drugged Driving.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 1, 2015.

[16] Ibid.