Illegal drug accidents are car accidents caused by a driver who is under the influence of a substance that impairs their ability to drive. Also called “driving while drugged,” or “driving while impaired,” these events are included under DUI and DWI laws, which may differ by state.
Along with alcohol, the ingestion of illegal drugs is one of the main causes of traffic injuries and fatalities. Many accidents are caused by drivers who have mixed alcohol and drugs.
Below are some statistics on accidents that involve driving while drugged. These are produced by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH), as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):
- Second only to alcohol fin causing accidents is THC from marijuana. It is the second most common substance found in the blood of car crash victims, fatally injured drivers, and impaired drivers,
- In 2012, around 10.3 million people were reported driving under the influence of illegal drugs. This includes underage drivers as young as 12 years old, and comprises about 3.9% of all adult and adolescent drivers;
- Over 16% of drivers on the roads on weekend nights were found to test positive for over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal drugs;
- Research reveals that male drivers are more likely than female drivers to test positive for illegal drugs or alcohol while driving;
- People between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most likely to drive under the influence of drugs;
In 2009, a total of 18% of drivers who suffered injuries resulted in their death tested positive for at least one over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal substance;
- Approximately 4 to 14% of drivers who die or suffer an injury in a car accident test positive for THC;
- Other drugs that are often implicated in driving accidents include cocaine, opiates, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and crystal meth. Of special concern are opiates and opiate-based prescription medicines such as oxycodone, which tend to make a driver fall asleep behind the wheel.
Drugged driving is still sadly common. Driving while drugged is driving under the influence of over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, marijuana, or illegal drugs. In 2020, 12.6 million people aged 16 and older drove while under the influence of illicit drugs. Of that total,11.7 million people were under the influence of marijuana. This is according to information in tables found in the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This is only a very small decrease from 2019 when 13.7 million people in the same age group admitted to driving after using illicit drugs.
In 2016, 44 percent of drivers in fatal car crashes, with known results from toxicology tests, tested positive for drugs, according to a report prepared by the Governors Highway Safety Association. This is an increase from 28 percent in 2006.
It is important to recognize not only how many accidents with injuries, often fatal, take place every year. It is also important to recognize how various drugs, prescription, over-the-counter and illegal, affect a person’s ability to operate a vehicle. Marijuana can decrease a person’s ability to drive a car, because it slows reaction time. It also disrupts a driver’s concentration and attention. It diminishes hand-eye coordination.
Driving under the influence of prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicine, such as cough suppressants, antihistamines, sleeping aids, and anti-anxiety medications may impair driving ability in a way that is similar to marijuana. Many medications make a person sleepy, and drivers under their influence risk falling asleep while driving with predictably disastrous consequences.
When considering illegal drug accident statistics, it is important to note that over-the-counter and prescription drugs can also become dangerous if abused or used improperly. For instance, using the drugs recreationally or driving while under their influence is dangerous and, in most cases, considered to be illegal.
Lastly, ingesting a combination of drugs and alcohol can be fatal. The consequences of mixing drugs with alcohol can be unpredictable and better left untried. A person should be especially careful when taking medication of any kind, over-the-counter, prescription or illicit drugs. Mixing them or mixing any one of them with alcohol is especially ill-advised.
The consequences of driving while impaired are not only the possibility of criminal charges. A person who causes an accident when driving while impaired may also face civil liability for damages in a personal injury lawsuit.
While a person’s auto insurance might cover the damages, the claim will result in greatly increased auto insurance rates. Depending on a person’s insurance company, they may well face other negative consequences such as nonrenewal or cancellation of their auto insurance. Experts advise that a person can expect their car insurance rates to increase by 79%, on average, after a DUI conviction, if their insurance is not canceled altogether.
What Are the Penalties for Driving While Drugged?
The crime of driving while drugged, or “impaired driving” as it is usually referred to, is committed by a person who operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of a substance. As noted above, the substances that can impair drivers include more than just alcoholic beverages. A number of substances that affect a person’s judgment or slow coordination and reaction time can affect a person’s driving performance. For example, a driver can be impaired by the following:
- Illicit drugs;
- Household products such a cough syrup that contains alcohol;
- Over-the-counter medications, which are drugs sold in drug stores that can be bought without a prescription;
- Prescription medications, especially tranquilizers and pain medication.
Presently, marijuana is fully legal in quite a few states as follows:
- District of Columbia;
- New Jersey;
- New Mexico;
- New York;
- North Carolina;
- Rhode Island;
- South Carolina;
So, while the public use of marijuana by adults age 21 and older is perfectly legal in these 26 states, using marijuana in a motor vehicle and driving while under the influence of marijuana remains criminal acts.
And driving under the influence of drugs is still dangerous. So, for example, in Colorado with the legalization of marijuana, the number of users of marijuana across age groups increased. In addition, traffic deaths have increased by 151%.
In New York state, driving under the influence of marijuana can result in a charge of “Driving While Ability Impaired by Drugs” (DWAI). By operating a motor vehicle, a person is deemed to have consented to a chemical test of their breath, blood, urine, or saliva for the purpose of determining drug or alcohol content.
Now a New York law enforcement officer who pulls a person over for a traffic violation, such as an expired registration, must have probable cause to search the vehicle for marijuana and test the driver for drug intoxication But if they detect the odor of cannabis in the vehicle and the driver shows signs of intoxication, the officer has probable cause. They can search the vehicle, and the driver can be subjected to a breath, blood, urine or saliva test.
There is no minimum amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, for a charge of DWAI. So, any amount of cannabis use could result in a DWAI charge. With regular use of marijuana, THC can remain detectable in a person’s blood for up to 7 days. For first-time users, 90% of THC drops after the first hour. However, it is important to keep in mind that the use of cannabis can make a person noticeably impaired.
Each state’s laws regarding driving while impaired by drugs are going to be somewhat different, but the penalties are very likely to be the same or similar to those in New York state where a first offense of DWAI is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,000 and/or as much as one year in jail. In addition, a person’s driver’s license is revoked for 6 months.
A second offense of DWAI in New York state is a Class E felony. The punishment is a fine of from $1,000 to $5,000, and/or up to one year in jail. A person’s driver’s license is revoked for one year.
If a passenger under the age of 16 is in the car with a driver who is under the influence of drugs, the driver can be charged with a felony criminal offense, even if it is a first offense. If the passenger under 16 is injured or dies in an accident, the felony charge could increase to a Class B or Class C felony. A person convicted of a Class B or Class C felony can go to prison for a term of from 4 to 25 years.
But that is not all. Whenever a driver is charged with DWAI in New York, that person is usually sentenced to complete an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, which may include an assessment and treatment.
Is Using Illegal Drugs a Crime?
The possession and use of various illegal drugs can be both federal and state crimes. The majority of federal drug convictions are for trafficking illegal drugs, whereas most local and state arrests are for use or possession. Over half of the arrests made by state and local law enforcement are for the possession of marijuana. Keep in mind, also, that using drugs that must be dispensed with a prescription by a person who does not have a prescription is illegal.
Punishment for violations of federal and state drug laws tend to be different. Generally the punishment for violation of federal drug laws are more harsh with longer prison sentences. Under state law, conviction for simple possession of a small quantity that is likely to be for personal use is charged as a misdemeanor. So the punishment would be probation or a short term of imprisonment in a local jail or payment of a fine. Much would depend on the criminal record and age of the perpetrator.
So, possessing and using small amounts of drugs would be punished under state law. But if a person is found in possession of large quantities of illegal drugs, this suggests to law enforcement that the person is a trafficker and the person is likely to be punished more severely.
Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help With Drug Accident Claims?
Drug-induced accidents are a leading cause of highway injuries and deaths. You may need to hire a personal injury lawyer if you or someone you know has been injured by a car accident that was caused by a drugged driver. Your attorney can represent you in negotiations or in court if that becomes necessary.
If you have been charged with driving while drugged, or if you have caused an accident when driving while drugged, you need to consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer can advise you how you can defend the criminal charges and minimize your sentence.
You may need both a personal injury lawyer because anyone who has suffered injury or damage in the accident may well file a civil lawsuit for damages against you. Your situation is going to be especially complicated. You need a criminal defense lawyer as well to defend against the criminal charges. So you should consult both for guidance as to how to proceed.