Driving is an essential daily task that helps us commute from point A to point B and beyond. When under the influence, however, driving becomes a hazard. Not only does a person put their own life at risk, but also those of pedestrians and other drivers on the road.
When looking at driving under the influence, alcohol generally gets the spotlight. Most people consider drunk driving to be a huge problem, which it certainly is. It causes fatalities all around the world and is considered a crime regardless of where a person lives. According to data released by the CDC, over 10,000 people in the United States die each year due to alcohol-involved traffic incidents.
While driving while under the influence of alcohol is a major problem, it is important not to overlook the effect of other substances. Drugs, in particular, often do not get enough attention. Driving while under the influence of drugs can be just as bad or even worse in some cases. Here, we take a closer look at how drugs can influence a person when they drive and compare the effects to those of alcohol.
How Drugs Affect the Brain and Motor Functions
Of all of the organs that make up the human body, the brain remains the most complex in its functions. Essentially, the brain is what defines a person. It is the organ that helps a person interpret their experiences and respond in an appropriate manner. It’s also what allows a person to drive a car.
When considering drugged driving, we need to turn our focus toward the effects that drugs have on the human brain. This also correlates directly to our ability to understand how driving abilities may be altered.
Brain cells communicate with each other. This process allows communication to then be sent out toward other parts of the body – such as the feet when a person needs to ease up on the gas pedal or perhaps press on the brake. Neurons act as communicators in the brain. They interact with parts of the body with the help of neurotransmitters.
There are different types of neurotransmitters found in the brain. Some regulate mood, others regulate hormone production, and there are also some that regulate motor functions in the body.
When drugs are used, the activity of neurons is altered. Certain neurons are activated due to the chemical structure of the drugs. When this happens, the drug’s chemicals will attach themselves to neurons. The problem, however, is that the activation is not the same as the natural process that is generally involved. When this happens, messages in the brain become abnormal – and this is when the person starts to feel intoxicated.
Multiple parts of the brain are affected when a person uses drugs. We want to focus on the prefrontal cortex region, particularly here. This is the part of the brain that is involved in abilities like:
- Decision making
Considering the roles of the prefrontal cortex, it should already become clear how alterations in these functions can impair a person’s driving capabilities.
Each one of these functions plays a part while a person is driving. The person needs to be able to think if they wish to drive correctly. When any issues are faced on the road, the ability to quickly solve a problem and make the right decision becomes critical – it could essentially mean the difference between a life-threatening accident and moving out of the way just in time.
Comparing Accident and Fatality Rates
We are taking a look at how drugged driving and drunk driving compares. With this in mind, to get a better understanding, looking at both accident and fatality rates related to these substances is important. By understanding how many fatalities drugs and alcohol are involved in, it becomes easier to see whether drunk driving or drugged driving is worse.
In 2016, 10,497 deaths were recorded with alcohol-impairment as a cause. These accidents were caused by a person who was under the influence of alcohol. In the same year, there were over one million arrests were made for drunk driving. Furthermore, 28% of deaths that were caused by a motor vehicle accident were linked to alcohol use.
It is not only adults who are affected by drunk drivers.
There are cases where children become victims. When a drunk driver causes an accident, children may be involved in one of the vehicles. An estimated 17% of deaths among children under 14 are cases where alcohol was involved in one of the adults. In 2016, 214 kids died due to a drunk driver in the United States.
While just over 10,000 deaths were recorded, the number of accidents where alcohol is involved tend to be significantly higher. Fatalities are not always experienced but still remains one of the biggest risks associated with drunk driving.
Involvement of drugs seems to be lower when looking at motor vehicle accidents. Reports show that about 16% of accidents are associated with drug-induced impairments among a driver. It has been found that incidents related to marijuana use have been increased over the last few years. When looking at vehicle accidents that happen at night, 13% are cases where marijuana was involved. The rate of accidents where a person is influenced by marijuana is also increasing during weekends.
Some studies have shown that marijuana causes a 25% increase in the risk of causing an accident.
Primary Difference Between Drugged and Drunk Driving
When looking at accidents related to drinking and driving, as well as using drugs, we need to consider how both substances affect the brain and body. The end result remains the same – both substances can alter the way the body works, particularly through changing certain chemical processes in the brain. The specifics behind each, however, are not the same.
When considering the effects, note that some drugs fall into the same category as alcohol. Alcoholic beverages have a depressant effect on the body. Apart from alcohol, these drugs are also depressants:
These substances cause a sedative effect on the body. The brain’s activity is reduced. The nervous system becomes slower. The result is an impairment in coordination and concentration. A person’s ability to make appropriate judgments will also be altered in a negative manner. These are all skills that people depend on when they are driving.
There are other classes of drugs and substances. We need to consider these classes, know which drugs fall in each class, and understand how they impair driving skills.
Stimulants are drugs that cause an increase in the individual’s heart rate. Dopamine supply in the brain becomes elevated. Some people use stimulants as a way to enhance focus. This, however, does not mean the drug will assist with driving. Instead, it can make a person agitated while they are driving. The individual becomes impatient and angers easily, which can cause poor coordination and risky decision-making.
Some commonly used drugs that are classified as stimulants include:
Marijuana is generally in a class of its own. It slows down the person’s judgment and reaction times. It makes it harder for a person to measure distance with their vision. Coordination is also altered negatively when a person has used marijuana. It has been found that people who drive with marijuana in their system do not pay enough attention to other cars and pedestrians on the road.
Another group of drugs that need to be considered would be hallucinogens. These drugs cause alterations in perception. When a person uses a hallucinogen, their feelings and thoughts also change. Hallucinations tend to occur. This makes the person see and hear things that aren’t really there.
Drugs classified as hallucinogens include:
- Psilocybin (mushrooms)
When hallucinogens kick in, the individual experiences alterations in their ability to make decisions; driving becomes more difficult when the person starts to experience hallucinations. The person may see things on the road that are not truly there – which can cause them to swing out of the road. The result could be a serious accident when they bump into a car in the other lane.
Is Drugged Driving Worse Than Drunk Driving?
We’ve taken a look at how fatality rates, accident rates, and the effects of alcohol and drugs differ. Our focus here is to determine which is worse – particularly when driving.
Drugs and alcohol each affect the brain, neural networks, and communication between cells in different ways. In the end, however, both of these substances cause impairment in specific regions of the brain. The impairment causes problems with the person’s ability to think normally. It also affects a person’s ability to make decisions or solve problems.
When driving, there are times where the individual need to think quickly and make a decision without delay. This is another ability that is impaired while drunk and when drugged.
With all of the statistics and facts we have explored, the evidence suggests both drunk and drugged driving are two things that people need to avoid at all costs. The fatality statistics for drunk driving seems to be higher in the United States when compared to drugged driving, but that could be a result of alcohol being a more common substance than drugs in terms of widespread use. There is, however, a rising trend in accidents where marijuana is involved.
In the end, a question like is drugged driving worse than drunk driving should not be the question asked. Both of these have similar effects and can increase the risk of vehicle accidents and fatalities. With this in mind, the ideal solution would be to avoid both, instead of looking at which would be a more acceptable option because, frankly, there is no clear answer – it’s all subjective and relative.
The Current Obstacles We Are Facing
Reducing the current rates of fatalities and accidents that are associated with drugged and drunk driving is a challenge that the entire globe is facing at the moment. Alcohol has been a legal substance for adults for nearly all time. In some states, the age restriction is increased to 21, but this still gives millions of people easy access to alcoholic beverages.
This is currently one of the biggest obstacles that are being faced when looking at accidents caused by drunk driving.
As we have already mentioned, recent studies find that there is also an increase in marijuana-related incidents. Many people who are involved in a vehicle accident now test positive for marijuana in their system. This is creating yet another obstacle in reducing fatality rates associated with driving under the influence.
One driving factor behind the increase in marijuana-related accidents is the trend at which cannabis use is being legalized within the United States. In recent surveys, 67% of people in the USA said that marijuana use should be legalized throughout the country. A large number of states have already started to legalize the use of this drug for recreational purposes. By allowing people to gain access so easily, there is a growing concern regarding the misuse of marijuana and a further increase in drug-related vehicle accidents.
Reducing the Risk of Accidents Caused by Drunk or Drugged Driving
Both alcohol and drugs cause a significant increase in the risk of a vehicle accident. These accidents can be fatal, putting the lives of everyone involved in danger. This is why identifying methods to reduce such risks is critical in improving road safety.
Avoiding drunk or drugged driving is certainly the most effective step that can be taken. When a person does not drive when they have had a few drinks, or when they decided to use drugs, then they will not have such a risk to worry about.
Unfortunately, some people suffer from substance abuse disorders. In such cases, overcoming the need for a more constant supply of drugs or alcohol can be hard. The person may find themselves under the influence of drugs or alcohol for the majority of the day. This means they are very likely to drink while drugged or drunk.
With this in mind, providing professional help to these individuals surfaces as the next best option for reducing these risks.
The individual with the problem will need to reach out to the appropriate professionals to get help. Contacting the best men’s residential treatment center for alcohol abuse in Texas can be a good initial step to take. In some cases, the addict will not admit to their problem by themselves. This often calls for a “push” from loved ones, which is why interventions are sometimes utilized.
An appropriate treatment program needs to be developed for the individual. This will start with detoxification. The addict is admitted to a ward during the detoxification period. There are trained medical staff that provides around the clock supervision. In some cases, medication-assisted detox is used. This can help to minimize the effects of withdrawal.
Continued support and treatment are needed following the detoxification phase. The addict may continue to remain admitted to the facility. In this scenario, residential treatment will be offered to the patient. Following a lengthy treatment period, ongoing outpatient services are often also suggested.
Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be dangerous. Unfortunately, alcohol gets all the attention when looking at driving while influenced by substances. Alcohol still poses a great danger, but so do drugs like opioids, marijuana, and others. We looked at how the two substance types differ and how both lead to a higher risk of fatalities, injuries, and accidents when driving.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.