Don’t Make This the Season of Impaired Driving

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By: Jeffrey Meyers, Certified Prevention Specialist

December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month

For many people, the holiday season marks their favorite time of year. Holidays mean more time with family and friends, and a new year to look forward to full of goals and plans. At the same time, December and later winter months also bring heightened risk for drunk and drugged driving, particularly between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It is then fitting that since 1981, every President has proclaimed December as National Impaired Driving Prevention Month.

When most people think of impaired driving, they think drunk driving, and for good reason. Driving under the influence of alcohol remains a serious issue, with someone becoming injured in an alcohol impaired driving crash every two minutes. In a staggering number of incidents, accidents can lead to a fatality. We know that in the year 2014, for example, nearly 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving accidents, which accounted for 31% of all traffic deaths that year. Though progress has been made, drunk driving has remained a significant problem such that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that, on average, two in three people will be involved in an alcohol-involved driving crash in their lifetime. Add to that the inclement weather, traffic congestion, and increased alcohol consumption that too often accompany this time of year, and one can understand why it is especially important to be cautious this season.

What’s important to recognize, however, is that impairment occurs not only under the influence of alcohol, but also prescription drugs, illegal drugs, and even over-the-counter medication. Thus while alcohol impaired driving tends to get the bulk of media attention, driving under the influence of other substances is a growing concert. In 2014, for example, 20% of drivers tested positive for at least one drug, up from 16.3% in 2007. The most common of these drugs was marijuana, at just under 13%. Contrast that with alcohol-impaired driving, which saw a 30% decrease from 2007 to 2014, and one can see that alcohol impaired driving is improving, whereas drugged impaired driving is on the rise.

Impairment can vary by substance and can be experienced differently, yet the risk remains very real. A person impaired by alcohol, for example, may have trouble concentrating whereas a person impaired by marijuana may experience an inability to shift attention and over fixate on one particular aspect of driving, neglecting other responsibilities. Both realities represent heightened risk, though the impairment may feel different between the two substances. Other symptoms of impairment can be found in alcohol, illicit drugs, and many prescription drugs such as lowered inhibitions, decreased reaction time, poor coordination and lowered judgement. When substances are combined, such as with marijuana and alcohol, the effects can become exacerbated resulting in even more profound impairment.

In the end, what’s important is not so much on what it is that makes a person impaired, though that is important, rather on the idea of driving impaired in any capacity. An accident is an accident; an injury is an injury, regardless of what may have preceded it. Through education and awareness we can act to prevent the senseless tragedies caused by impaired driving and instead focus on what makes us happy, healthy and safe.