November 14, 2023

Drunk Driving vs. High Driving: A Statistical Showdown

This article presents a thorough analysis of impaired driving, comparing drunk driving vs. high driving statistics, and the associated risks and impact of both.

drunk driving vs high driving

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Dane Perikly

Director of Virtual Services & DUI Education

Last Update on November 14, 2023

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Impaired driving is a growing concern, and the comparison between drunk driving and high driving highlights a crucial issue in road safety.

This article provides an in-depth analysis of the statistics related to these two forms of impaired driving, including their prevalence, associated risks, and consequences for road users.

By comparing these two types of impaired driving, you will better understand the distinct challenges and dangers that each poses.

Understanding Impairment: Alcohol vs. Drugs

Understanding impairment in the context of driving is crucial when comparing the effects of alcohol versus those of other drugs.

Both substances can significantly impact a driver’s abilities in different ways.

The Physiological Effects of Alcohol on a Driver

Alcohol consumption can significantly slow down a driver’s reaction time, which can be critical in situations that require quick decision-making, such as responding to traffic signals or unexpected road hazards.

Even moderate amounts of alcohol can impair motor skills and coordination, making it challenging to operate vehicle controls effectively.

Alcohol also affects a driver’s visual acuity and depth perception, potentially causing blurred vision and difficulty in judging distances, which are crucial in driving.

Impaired judgment and decision-making are also common effects of alcohol, which can lead to risky behaviors such as speeding or reckless driving.1

Additionally, alcohol can reduce a driver’s ability to concentrate and maintain attention on the road, which increases the likelihood of distractions.

Type of Impairment:Effect of Alcohol:
Reaction TimeSlows down, affecting quick decision-making
Coordination and Motor SkillsImpairment, making vehicle operation challenging
Vision and PerceptionBlurred vision, difficulty in judging distances
Judgment and Decision-MakingImpaired, leading to risky behaviors like speeding
Concentration and AttentionReduces ability to concentrate and maintain attention

The Physiological Effects of the Most Commonly Used Drugs Other than Alcohol on a Driver

It’s essential to understand the effects of different drugs on driving.

Marijuana use can slow reaction times, impair the judgment of time and distance, and decrease motor coordination.

If you’re under the influence of marijuana while driving, you may struggle to stay in your lane and maintain a consistent speed.2

Opioids, whether they’re prescription painkillers or illegal drugs like heroin, can cause drowsiness, impair your thinking, and decrease your reaction times.

They also affect your ability to make rational decisions.

Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine can make you more alert at first but can lead to erratic and aggressive driving, overconfidence in your driving skills, and impaired decision-making.

Sedatives like benzodiazepines can make you feel dizzy and drowsy and can slow down your reaction times.

They can also affect your concentration and significantly impair your ability to process information while driving.

Finally, hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin can cause altered perceptions and hallucinations, which can impair your sense of time and space and make it challenging to process external stimuli while driving.

Type of Drug:Effects on Driving:
MarijuanaSlows reaction times, impairs judgment of time and distance, decreases motor coordination, may cause issues with lane tracking and speed consistency
OpioidsCauses drowsiness, impaired thinking, decreased reaction times, and affects rational decision-making
Stimulants (e.g., Cocaine, Methamphetamine)May increase alertness initially but can lead to erratic and aggressive driving, overconfidence, and impaired decision-making
Sedatives (e.g., Benzodiazepines)Causes dizziness, drowsiness, slow reaction times, affects concentration, and significantly impairs information processing
Hallucinogens (e.g., LSD, Psilocybin)Causes altered perceptions, hallucinations, impairs sense of time and space, leading to disorientation and difficulty in processing external stimuli

Differences and Similarities in Impairment:

Impairment:Alcohol:Other Drugs (e.g., Marijuana, Opioids, Stimulants, Sedatives, Hallucinogens):
Reaction TimeSlows down significantlyVaries: slowed in marijuana and opioids; may be erratic in stimulants
Coordination and Motor SkillsImpaired, difficulty in operating vehicle controlsImpaired to varying degrees; sedatives and hallucinogens can severely affect motor skills
Vision and PerceptionBlurred vision, difficulty judging distancesMay alter perception of reality, especially with hallucinogens; depth perception issues with marijuana
Judgment and Decision-MakingPoor decision-making, increased risk-takingImpaired judgment, especially with marijuana and hallucinogens; overconfidence with stimulants
Concentration and AttentionReduced ability to concentrate and maintain attentionVaries: reduced with marijuana and sedatives; may be falsely heightened with stimulants

Prevalence of Drunk and High Driving

Discussing the prevalence of drunk and high driving requires a look at both national and international statistics, which can vary widely based on region, enforcement practices, and social norms.

National and International Statistics on Drunk Driving Incidents

National Statistics:

In many countries, drunk driving remains a significant problem.

For instance, in the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that about 28% of all traffic-related deaths in 2019 were due to alcohol impairment.3

International Statistics:

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that road traffic injuries caused by alcohol-impaired driving constitute a major public health problem.

In countries with stringent drink-driving laws, such as Norway and Japan, the incidence of drunk driving is considerably lower compared to countries with more lenient policies or enforcement practices.

National and International Statistics on Driving Under the Influence of Commonly Used Prescribed or Illicit Drugs

National Statistics:

In the U.S., the NHTSA’s 2016 Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers found that about 20% of surveyed drivers tested positive for potentially impairing drugs, both legal and illegal.4

This includes marijuana, which has become increasingly prevalent with its legalization in several states.

International Statistics:

Internationally, data collection on drug-impaired driving is less consistent.

However, reports from various countries indicate a rising concern.

For instance, in Canada, drug-impaired driving incidents have been increasing, particularly after the legalization of cannabis.

In European countries, the prevalence of drug-impaired driving varies, with some studies showing higher rates of cannabis and cocaine use among drivers.

Comparative Analysis of the Prevalence Rates

Comparison of Drunk and High Driving:

Comparatively, drunk driving tends to have higher prevalence rates globally, partly due to more robust methods of detection and longer-standing social awareness of the issue.

However, high driving is an emerging concern, especially as legal attitudes toward certain drugs like marijuana shift.

Impact of Legislation and Social Norms

Local laws, enforcement practices, and social attitudes heavily influence the prevalence of both drunk and high driving.

In regions with strict anti-drunk driving campaigns and stringent laws, such as Scandinavia, there’s generally a lower incidence of drunk driving.

Conversely, in regions where drug use is less stigmatized or legalized, such as in certain U.S. states or Canada, there’s a noted increase in drug-impaired driving incidents.

Challenges in Data Collection and Comparison

It’s important to note the challenges in collecting and comparing drunk and high-driving data.

While alcohol impairment can be relatively easily measured through blood alcohol concentration (BAC), detecting and quantifying drug impairment is more complex due to the varying effects of different substances and the lack of standardized testing methods.

While drunk driving continues to be a predominant issue worldwide, the prevalence of driving under the influence of drugs is rising, posing new challenges for road safety and law enforcement.

The comparison of these two forms of impaired driving requires continuous monitoring and adaptation of legal frameworks to address the evolving landscape of substance use and driving.

Legal Limits and Enforcement Challenges

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits for Alcohol-Impaired Driving

BAC Limits:

Most countries have established legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limits for drivers, typically ranging from 0.05% to 0.08%.

For instance, in the United States, the standard legal limit is 0.08%.

Some countries, like Russia and Brazil, have zero-tolerance policies, with limits as low as 0.00% or 0.02%.

Enforcement:

BAC levels are relatively straightforward to measure with breathalyzers or blood tests.

This ease of measurement facilitates enforcement and legal proceedings in cases of drunk driving.

Challenges in Establishing and Enforcing Comparable Limits for Commonly Used Drugs

Variability of Drugs:

Unlike alcohol, the effects of drugs like marijuana, opioids, and stimulants vary greatly depending on the substance, dosage, and individual user.

This variability makes it challenging to establish a universal impairment threshold.

Detection and Measurement:

Unlike BAC, there is no universally accepted standard for measuring drug impairment.

Drug tests can detect the presence of substances, but not necessarily impairment.

For example:

• Marijuana: THC levels in the blood can indicate usage but don’t directly correlate with impairment. Some jurisdictions have established THC limits (like 5 nanograms per milliliter in Colorado), but these are controversial.

• Prescription Drugs: Opioids and benzodiazepines can be detected, but given their legal status for medicinal use, determining impairment is complex.

Legal Complexity:

Laws vary widely, with some regions employing zero-tolerance policies for any detectable level of illicit drugs, while others attempt to set specific thresholds.

The disparity in legal approaches reflects the complexity of equating drug presence with impairment.

Legal Tests and the Detection Window for Substances

Alcohol Testing:

Breathalyzers and blood tests are standard for detecting alcohol, with alcohol typically being detectable in the breath and blood for several hours after consumption.

Drug Testing:

The methods and detection windows vary by substance.

• Marijuana: Can be detected in blood tests for several hours, but in urine tests, THC metabolites may be detectable for days or weeks, long after impairment has subsided.

• Other Drugs: Blood tests can detect substances like cocaine, methamphetamines, and opioids for a short window after use (usually within hours), but urine tests can extend the detection window to days.

• Enforcement Challenges:

The varying detection windows and lack of direct correlation between presence and impairment for drugs make enforcement a significant challenge.

Law enforcement officers often rely on field sobriety tests and drug recognition experts to assess impairment, but these methods are more subjective compared to BAC testing for alcohol.

Enforcing a standard for drug-impaired driving is much more challenging than enforcing one for alcohol-impaired driving.

This is because drugs have varying effects on individuals, measuring impairment is complex, and the legal complexities of dealing with drugs that have both medicinal and illicit uses make it even more challenging.

The Risks: Accidents, Fatalities, and Injuries

Statistics on Traffic Accidents Involving Alcohol Impairment

Prevalence:

Alcohol-impaired driving remains a leading cause of traffic accidents. 

In the United States, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that in 2019, drunk driving caused 10,142 fatalities, averaging one death every 52 minutes.

Severity:

The accidents involving alcohol tend to be more severe.

The impairment of judgment and motor skills increases the likelihood of high-speed collisions and risky driving behaviors.

Statistics on Traffic Accidents Involving Other Drug-Related Impairment

Rising Concern:

With the increasing use of both illicit and prescription drugs, drug-impaired driving is becoming a growing concern.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that marijuana users are about 25% more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use, although other factors – like age and gender – also contribute to crash risk.

Polydrug Use:

A complicating factor in assessing drug-related accidents is polydrug use – the use of multiple substances simultaneously, which can exponentially increase impairment and the risk of accidents.

Comparative Risk Analysis of Accidents, Fatalities, and Injuries

Comparative Severity:

While both alcohol and drug impairment significantly increase the risk of traffic accidents, alcohol-impaired driving tends to result in more severe outcomes, including higher fatality rates.

This is partly due to the tendency of drunk drivers to engage in riskier behaviors, such as speeding.

Fatality Rates:

Alcohol-related accidents have a higher fatality rate compared to accidents where the driver was impaired by other drugs.

However, this data may be skewed by better reporting and detection of alcohol-related impairment.

Injury Severity:

The severity of injuries in alcohol-related accidents is often higher due to the nature of these crashes (e.g., high-speed collisions).

Drug-related accidents might result in a wider variety of outcomes, depending on the type of drug and level of impairment.

Reporting and Detection Issues:

Comparing the risks and outcomes is challenging due to the differences in detection and reporting.

Alcohol impairment is more consistently tested for and reported in accident data compared to drug impairment, which can lead to underreporting of drug-related incidents.

Although both drunk and drug-impaired driving pose significant risks to road safety, alcohol-impaired driving currently has a higher correlation with accidents, fatalities, and severe injuries.

However, with the legalization and broader acceptance of certain drugs, the prevalence of drug-impaired driving is increasing, and its impact on road safety requires close monitoring and further study.

Given the complexities of measuring and reporting drug impairment, improved detection, and data collection methods are necessary.

Societal Impact and Economic Costs

The Economic Burden of Drunk Driving on Healthcare and Law Enforcement

Healthcare Costs:

Drunk driving accidents often result in severe injuries, fatalities, and significant healthcare expenses.

These costs may include emergency services, medical treatment, rehabilitation, and long-term care for those who suffer chronic injuries.

Law Enforcement and Legal System Costs:

Enforcing drunk driving laws incurs costs for police patrols, DUI checkpoints, arrests, legal proceedings, and imprisonment, which are substantial for local and national governments.

Insurance and Property Damage:

Drunk driving leads to higher insurance premiums and substantial property damage costs for vehicles and infrastructure.

The Economic Burden of High Driving on Healthcare and Law Enforcement

Emerging Data:

With the increasing legalization of marijuana and other drugs, the economic impact of driving under the influence is becoming more apparent.

However, comprehensive data is still emerging.

Healthcare Costs:

Accidents caused by drug impairment can result in significant healthcare expenses, but the nature and severity of these injuries may vary, similar to alcohol.

Enforcement Challenges:

The enforcement of drug-impaired driving laws can be costly due to the complex detection process and the need for specialized training and equipment, such as Drug Recognition Experts and specialized drug testing kits.

Social Consequences and Indirect Costs of Impaired Driving

Loss of Productivity:

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can result in injury, death, and imprisonment of working-age individuals, leading to loss of productivity.

Impact on Families and Communities:

The impact on society is significant.

Victims and offenders’ families face emotional and financial strain, while communities bear the cost of emergency response and long-term care for those with disabling injuries.

Insurance and Litigation:

Increased insurance premiums and litigation costs contribute to society’s economic burden.

Prevention and Education:

Governments and non-profits spend significant amounts on campaigns and programs to educate the public about the dangers of impaired driving, aiming to reduce its incidence.

The impact of impaired driving on society and the economy is extensive and varied.

Although the effects of drunk driving are more well-known, the growing incidence of drug-impaired driving is presenting equally, if not more complex, challenges.

Both forms of impaired driving place significant burdens on healthcare, law enforcement, and society as a whole, highlighting the need for effective strategies for prevention and intervention.

Public Perception and Awareness

Survey Data on Public Perception of Drunk Driving vs. High Driving

Perceived Severity:

Public perception often views driving under the influence of drugs like cannabis as less dangerous than drunk driving, partly due to the long-standing awareness campaigns and legal emphasis on the dangers of drunk driving.

Generational Differences:

Younger generations in regions where cannabis is legal may view high driving as less risky than older generations exposed to anti-drunk driving campaigns.

Influence of Legal Status:

In areas where cannabis is illegal, there may be a higher perception of danger or irresponsibility associated with driving while under the influence of cannabis compared to places where it is legal.

Awareness and Education Efforts for Both Types of Impaired Driving

Drunk Driving Campaigns:

Numerous campaigns, such as those conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and various government initiatives, have effectively increased awareness about the risks of drunk driving.

These efforts involve educating students in schools, disseminating public service announcements, and implementing strict law enforcement measures.

High Driving Education:

There is a growing emphasis on awareness and education efforts related to drug-impaired driving, especially cannabis.

However, varying legal statuses and a lack of clarity about risks compared to alcohol pose challenges for these campaigns.

Focus on Youth Education:

Both campaigns now target younger drivers, who are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors and emphasize the consequences of impaired driving.

The Impact of Legalization of Cannabis on Public Perception

Normalization of Use:

In areas where cannabis has been legalized, people might view its use as normal, which can lead to a casual attitude towards driving under its influence.

The legal status of cannabis may cause the public to underestimate the dangers associated with driving while high.

Conflicting Messages:

Legalization may convey safety if public health campaigns are inadequate.

Need for Data-Driven Campaigns:

There is an increasing need for awareness campaigns to be grounded in scientific research and data, emphasizing the genuine hazards of driving while high, akin to the ones established for drunk driving.

Adjusting Legal and Educational Frameworks:

Legalization requires updating the legal framework, including setting impairment limits and enforcement strategies and educational campaigns to address the risks associated with driving under the influence of cannabis.

Although people generally know that impaired driving is dangerous, there is a difference in how people perceive drunk driving versus driving under the influence of drugs.

The legalization of cannabis in many areas presents new challenges in accurately shaping public perception.

It is crucial to continue educating and raising awareness of the risks associated with all forms of impaired driving to address these challenges and ensure a clear understanding..

Prevention and Policy

Prevention Programs and Their Effectiveness for Drunk Driving

Public Awareness Campaigns:

Campaigns like “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” have been effective in raising awareness about the risks of drunk driving.

These campaigns often include media advertisements, community events, and educational programs.

Sobriety Checkpoints and Enforcement:

Increased law enforcement efforts, including sobriety checkpoints, have been shown to deter drunk driving.

These measures put the potential of immediate legal consequences at the forefront of drivers’ minds.

Legal Penalties:

Stricter penalties for DUI offenses, including fines, license suspension, and jail time, have a deterrent effect.

Alcohol Education and Treatment Programs:

Mandatory alcohol education and treatment programs for DUI offenders have been effective in reducing recidivism.

Prevention Programs and Their Effectiveness for High Driving

Developing Awareness Campaigns:

With the increasing legalization and use of cannabis, there is a growing need for public awareness campaigns tailored to high driving.

These are relatively newer and evolving to address the specific risks of drug-impaired driving.

Challenges in Enforcement:

Enforcement is more challenging for drug-impaired driving due to the difficulties in detecting impairment levels for drugs compared to alcohol.

This affects the effectiveness of roadside testing and sobriety checkpoints.

Education on Drug Impairment:

Educational initiatives, particularly targeting young drivers, focusing on the risks of driving while under the influence of drugs, are crucial.

These programs are still in the developmental stages in many areas.

Policy Responses to the Challenges of Impaired Driving

Setting Legal Limits:

For alcohol, legal BAC limits are well-established.

For drugs, some regions are experimenting with legal limits for THC (the active ingredient in cannabis), though this is complex due to the different nature of drug impairment.

Zero-Tolerance Policies:

Some jurisdictions have implemented zero-tolerance policies for drug-impaired driving, especially for certain classes of drivers, like commercial drivers and minors.

Integration of Technology:

Advancements in technology, such as ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders, are being used as policy tools to prevent impaired driving.

Policy Adaptation for Emerging Trends:

Policymakers are continuously adapting to emerging trends, such as the rise in prescription drug abuse and the legalization of cannabis.

These adaptations include new laws, enforcement strategies, and educational efforts.

Although there have been notable strides made in preventing drunk driving, the obstacles presented by driving under the influence of drugs, mainly since the legalization of cannabis, necessitate a continuous adaptation of prevention programs and policies.

The effectiveness of these initiatives highly depends on public education, vigorous enforcement strategies, and constant refinement of policies to address the changing scenario of impaired driving.

Addressing the Challenges of Impaired Driving

Ensuring road safety requires a deep understanding and practical approach to dealing with drunk and high-driving issues.

Although significant progress has been made in the fight against drunk driving, the constantly evolving challenge of high driving, particularly in light of the increasing legalization of substances like cannabis, necessitates a renewed focus.

To effectively reduce impaired driving and enhance road safety, it is crucial to conduct more research to understand the full impact of these behaviors, develop better enforcement techniques to accurately detect and deter impairment, and implement comprehensive education programs to raise awareness about the risks involved.

These efforts combined can lead to a safer driving environment for everyone.

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Author & Reviewers

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Dane Perikly

DIRECTOR OF VIRTUAL SERVICES

Dane is the Director of Virtual services at Cornerstone. He contributes guides on DUI education so that you can understand all there is to know about DUI charges, education, and the overall process of meeting Arizona requirements after a DUI. He cares deeply about raising awareness of the dangers of DUI and illustrating the impact on victims and on those charged. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director
CLINICAL DIRECTOR

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of conditions.

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