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Impaired driving and drug use

In a 2007 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 11 percent of all drivers tested on weekend nights came up positive for illicit drugs. When the survey added prescription or over-the-counter drugs to the mix, the percentage rose to 16 percent. Although alcohol use by drivers remains a serious hazard, the use of drugs, legal and illegal, can be equally dangerous to those sharing the road.

Some of the more common non-alcoholic psychoactives found among accident victims include opiates, amphetamines and cocaine. A range of studies has found THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in the bloodstream of between 4 and 14 percent of those killed or injured in a car accident. Smoking marijuana affects motor skills, reaction time, and depth perception. In addition, short-term memory loss can impair the use of defensive driving reactions learned over the years. Combining marijuana with alcohol worsens these unsafe impairments.

While police departments and highway patrol squads use fairly standardized blood alcohol content tests throughout the country, and the states have set consistent legal limits, drug testing remains inconsistent in testing methods and in treatment of the results by the law. However, accident investigators often make note of a driver found to be under the influence of drugs or medication and might apportion all or some of the fault for the accident on that basis.

Plaintiffs' attorneys may review all legal evidence when pursuing a case for damages arising from an accident. Police accident reports are public records and may be obtained by attorneys. Even if a driver would not be otherwise found liable for an accident, drug intoxication could provide grounds for a finding of contributory negligence. In some states, this could affect any damages awarded to a plaintiff.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, "DrugFacts: Drugged Driving," December 28, 2014

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