Drugged Driving in America

Driver drug test

“The dangers of drugged driving are outpacing drunk driving.” That is the headline from a January 2021 study that sought to warn Americans of the growing danger of drugged driving, an epidemic on US roadways that may soon become worse than drunk driving. The study showed that a sizable percentage of individuals surveyed reported being under the influence of marijuana and other illicit drugs while behind the wheel.

What the Findings Show

A study titled “Drugged driving among US adults: Results from the 2016-2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health” appeared in a January 2021 issue of the Journal of Safety Research. The findings of that study provided some of the first evidence that suggests drugged driving is a critical safety concern in America, one that borders in its severity on that of drunk driving.

Unlike drunk driving, a long-time issue that has led to numerous preventive campaigns and law enforcement strategies to address it, widespread drugged driving is a relatively newer phenomenon. The startling rise in the percentage of Americans who use drugs and drive – coupled with a slow prevention and law enforcement response to the issue – has made American roads much less safe.

To arrive at their findings, researchers at the University of Cincinnati surveyed a large group of American adults, finding that while 8.52% reported driving under the influence of alcohol, 4.49% reported driving under the influence of marijuana. Further, another group of adults said they used marijuana and alcohol before getting behind the wheel of the car. The 8.52% figure reported for drunk driving is about the same as figures reported in previous years, but the percentage for marijuana-impaired driving is not.

The 4.49% figure for drugged driving represents an alarming increase over previous survey responses and is almost certainly an underestimate. For example, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 8% to 12% of people test positive for cannabis intoxication when stopped by law enforcement, figures that are double and triple the rate of adults admitting to cannabis while driving in the Journal of Safety Research study cited earlier. 

Intoxicated Driving is Lethal

A direct correlation exists between increasing numbers of Americans driving under the influence and accidents. According to the data, among people killed in driving accidents in 2016, 43.6% of drivers who were drug tested had positive results. Of that group, 50.5% were positive for two or more drugs, and 40.7% were positive for alcohol. Driving a vehicle always has risks, but people driving intoxicated are putting themselves and others at far greater risk.

Driver walks toward a car with alcohol

The study authors also found a correlation between increasing cannabis legalization and a rise in drugged driving incidents in states that legalized it. “There is serious concern as to how legalization will affect driving behaviors among adults,” said study co-author Keith King, pointing to the higher-than-average incidences of drugged driving accidents in states that legalized cannabis within the last few years.

The data bears out that concern. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11.7 million Americans drove under the influence of drugs in 2021, with 44% of drivers involved in fatal car crashes that year testing positive for drugs.

“Since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2013 [in Colorado], traffic deaths in which drivers tested positive for marijuana increased 135% while all Colorado traffic deaths increased 24%...”

The lethal effect of drugged driving has been particularly relevant in states that legalized cannabis. According to one organization dedicated to stopping drugged driving, “Since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2013 [in Colorado], traffic deaths in which drivers tested positive for marijuana increased 135% while all Colorado traffic deaths increased 24%. That equates to one person killed every 3 1/2 days in 2019 compared to one person killed every 6 1/2 days in 2013.” The organization showed similar findings for Washington State shortly after it legalized cannabis.

Education is a Critical Preventive Strategy

The researchers who found that more Americans are using drugs and driving also found that young Americans who received honest, non-stigmatized, and compassionate conversations from parents and teachers about drugs and alcohol were statistically less likely to drink or use drugs and drive than individuals who had not been involved in such conversations as children.

Unfortunately, educational interventions and public health approaches to drugged driving have been slow to catch up to the crisis, leaving the problem to households to address. Another study analyzed this concern, concluding that “[Prevention professionals] reported needing training and resources to implement strategies related to drugged driving, particularly with regard to engaging youth and parents, if they are to address this problem effectively. The majority of respondents also reported low levels of self-efficacy for implementing a wide range of drugged driving prevention strategies.” That study isolated a significant lack of state-wide and national tools for preventing drugged driving.

Father talks to his son about drugged driving

Thankfully, there is much that individual families can do to ensure their loved ones do not use drugs and drive. Parents should have conversations with their children about the dangers of using drugs and driving, as notions about experimenting with drugs and driving often begin in one’s teens or early adult years. Young people should be shown that drugged driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. Parents should help their children dispel the notion that people can somehow “control” the effects of their intoxication while driving.

Having these conversations is important because driving while under the influence of drugs is especially prevalent among young people. The organization Stop Drugged Driving found that driving under the influence of marijuana is a problem among young drivers aged 21-25 (10%) and 16-20 (6.3%) and was more common than driving under the influence of alcohol. Educational efforts, conversations, prevention strategies taught at schools, and coaching kids on saying no to peer pressure should be utilized to stop drugged driving where it begins, i.e., when people are young.

Treatment is a Must for Those Who Can’t Stop Using Drugs

Education and prevention efforts, when broadly offered to all residents, when worked at consistently, and provided to all age groups, demographics, and locales, can do much to stop people from ever using drugs and getting behind the wheel of a car. However, for those who are already using drugs and drinking, for individuals who use mind-altering substances and cannot stop on their own, prevention efforts and education will not be enough. Such individuals will need the help of residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers.

If you know someone who is drinking or using drugs and who cannot stop doing so alone, please help them find and enter a qualified residential addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Someone who cannot stop using substances on their own is addicted and will need professional help to get clean. Please do not wait until it is too late, as every time they drive intoxicated, they are risking their lives and the lives of others on the road.


  • ScienceDirect. “Drugged driving among US adults: Results from the 2016–2018 national survey on drug use and health.” Science Direct, 2020. sciencedirect.com
  • NCSL. “Drugged Driving | Marijuana-Impaired Driving.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022. ncsl.org
  • ScienceDaily. “The dangers of drugged driving are outpacing drunk driving.” Science Daily, 2021. sciencedaily.com
  • NIDA. “Drugged Driving Facts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019. nida.nih.gov
  • NIH. “The Prevention of Drugged Driving: Needs, Barriers, and Self-Efficacy of Prevention Professionals.” National Institute of Health, 2019. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  • SDD. “Reduce Drugged Driving.” Stop Drugged Driving, 2023. ibhinc.org



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.