NHTSA Survey Shows Drunk Driving Down, Drugged Driving Up

By KBB.com Editors on July 17, 2009 10:22 AM

Just-released results of a 2007 roadside survey conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that the percentage of individuals driving with illegal levels of blood alcohol has steadily declined over the past several decades but that a disturbingly high percentage of people are now driving while under the influence of drugs. Back in 1973, NHTSA data indicated that 7.3 percent of drivers had a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.8 percent or higher, sufficient to qualify under legally drunk in all 50 states under today's standards. By 1996, that figure had dropped to 4.3 percent and the latest study found that it had fallen to 2.2 percent. Although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was encouraged by that number, he also pointed out alcohol-related accidents still account for more than 13,000 deaths each year on American highways.

Other key alcohol-related findings in the NHTSA report include that drunk driving is more prevalent between 1:00-3:00 AM than at any other time of the day or night and that males are 42 percent more likely to be driving with a BAC level in excess of 0.8 percent than are females. Perhaps the most unimaginable stat: motorcycle riders were more than twice as likely (5.6 percent compared to 2.3 percent) to be riding drunk than were drivers of passenger vehicles. Pickup truck drivers claimed the runner-up spot on the BAC offenders list, coming in at 3.3 percent.

While its previous surveys were only capable of measuring alcohol use, new screening techniques allowed NHTSA to assess those it checked in the 2007 study for the presence of various other substances, including legal and illegal drugs. Focusing on the period it expected would be most dangerous -- nighttime weekend driving -- the researchers discovered that 16.3 percent of people it surveyed during that time were under the influence. Heading the illegal drug list were marijuana (8.6 percent) and cocaine (3.9 percent), although 3.9 percent of the drivers checked also showed some level of impairment as the result of prescription or over-the-counter medications. NHTSA said it plans to conduct additional research in the area of drug-impaired motorists and will apply lessons garnered from its anti-drunk driver efforts to help eliminate this potentially lethal problem as well.

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