The dangers of drugged driving

It is time to confront a troubling, dangerous phenomenon on our nation's roads and highways: people driving after taking drugs.

One out of eight vehicles on the road on any given weekend night is being driven by an individual with illegal drugs in his or her system. This statistic, from the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers, highlights the pervasiveness of drugged driving. The 2007 Roadside Survey is the first time that a test for drugged driving was included in this extensive survey of drivers.

And other studies show the extent of the drugged driving issue as well. In 2008, 12 percent of 18-25 year olds reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the previous year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Further, the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future survey showed that, in 2008, 1 in 10 high school seniors said they had driven a vehicle after smoking marijuana in the two weeks prior to the survey.

The news is disturbing because drugs can impair perception, judgment, motor skills and memory. Drugged driving endangers not only drivers who use drugs. It puts us all at risk and must be prevented. Fortunately, we know that the drugged driving problem presents a prime opportunity to make use of the power of prevention.

We must respond to all forms of problematic driving — whether from drugs, drinking, or texting. By educating the public about the dangers of drugged driving, we can do more to help focus the nation's attention. It is vital to raise awareness of this dangerous practice with local governments, parents, schools, faith communities, community organizations and medical professionals.

We can save additional lives by adding to the number of law enforcement officers trained to detect drugged driving. There are only 6,000 officers nationwide who have received valuable training as Drug Recognition Experts through a program, funded by NHTSA, and managed and coordinated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. We need more of these highly trained law enforcement officers who have literally saved lives by helping to identify drugged drivers on our nation's roads.

There is still more we can do. Fifteen states have already passed legislation establishing a zero tolerance "per se" standard for drugged driving. Using this standard, an individual who is driving erratically can be stopped and cited if, after testing, he or she is found to have an illegal drug in his or her system. Sanctions for violating these laws are not purely punitive; they should also help direct drugged driving offenders to get the treatment or brief intervention they need in order to lead drug-free lives.

At the federal level, we will push for more research into technologies to accurately identify the presence of drugs in the system. Together, we can use this information to expand anti-drugged driving laws nationwide.

We are also working to encourage doctors and other medical professionals to recognize patients with substance-abuse problems early and to talk to patients about these issues. Parents can talk to their children about the consequences of illicit drug use and the dangers of driving after using drugs. Communities can reinforce the message that drug abuse can cause serious harm.

I have made reducing drugged driving a priority for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in 2010. ONDCP is working with the Department of Transportation and others on new initiatives aimed at getting drugged drivers off the road.

I'm confident that we have the tools to address the serious threat to public health and public safety posed by drugged driving. We must do everything in our power to make good use of them.

Gil Kerlikowske is the White House Drug Policy Director. His e-mail is XX.