Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can impair cognitive and psychomotor abilities and result in legal action or even death.

Vehicular accidents are one of the leading causes of mortality among the youth. Many of these deaths involve substance abuse. Despite the widespread public attention to drunk driving, alcohol was involved in almost 24% of all fatalities due to car crashes young drivers, according to a 2017 National Highway Traffic Service Administration survey.

Although less attention has been paid to substances like marijuana and prescription drugs, these drugs can also impair driving abilities and result in fatalities. The effect of these substances on driving ability is further compounded by the limited driving experience of adolescents and their proclivity for risk-taking and pleasure-seeking behaviors.

Facts & Statistics About Teens Driving While High

Statistics show that teen driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is still a significant problem:

  • In 2017, 2.01 million individuals between the ages of 16–20 drove a vehicle under the influence of marijuana
  • In 2017, 244,000 individuals between the ages of 16–20 drove under the influence of illicit drugs other than marijuana, including opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, hallucinogens and inhalants
  • In 2017, 24% of individuals between the ages of 16–20 who died in car crashes had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01g/dL or higher, which is considered driving under the influence
  • In 2016, 20% of males below the age of 21 involved in fatal crashes had detectable alcohol levels (0.01g/dL or 0.001%) compared to 15% of young females
  • In 2017, individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 were involved in 39% of fatalities related to drunk driving

What Drugs are Teens Taking While Driving?

Drunk driving has been a public health issue for a long time, but driving while intoxicated with opioids and marijuana has emerged as a traffic safety issue only in recent years. According to a study involving college students, individuals were more likely to drive under the influence of alcohol than any other drug. Alcohol was followed by marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs. Polysubstance use is more commonly observed than the use of a single drug.

Some of the most common drugs teens use while driving include:

  • Marijuana: While there is contradictory evidence regarding the role of marijuana in causing traffic collision on its own, it increases the chances of a collision when used in combination with other substances.
  • Alcohol: Young drivers tend to have a lower tolerance for alcohol and are more prone to get intoxicated by alcohol at lower doses. Alcohol has been consistently shown to impair cognitive function, including concentration, attention, motor coordination and reaction time. Consistent with these cognitive effects, intoxication with alcohol impairs driving skills such as lane control, brake reaction time, speed control and steering responsiveness.
  • Prescription Drugs: Prescription pain relievers are the fourth leading cause of driving-related fatalities. These include prescription opioids that can induce drowsiness and impair cognitive skills involving memory and thinking. Other prescription drugs, like barbiturates and benzodiazepines, also impair driving due to their sedative effects.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine and other psychostimulant drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, may also impair driving performance. Cocaine and other stimulants are generally associated with reckless and aggressive behaviors that can result in vehicular collisions.

Dangers of Drugged Driving

As evident from the statistics enlisted in the preceding section, driving under the influence of illicit drugs and alcohol is associated with impaired driving that can lead to fatal traffic collisions. The effects of driving under the influence are not simply restricted to the individual using the drug; drugged or drunken driving also endangers the lives of passengers and other drivers.

Consequences of Driving While High

Besides potentially resulting in a fatal collision, driving while impaired due to any substance, legal or illegal, is against the law in all 50 states in the United States. One may be charged for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI). Although these terms are often used interchangeably, in certain states like Texas, DUI is a charge for driving with alcohol levels below the legal limit. On the other hand, DWI indicates driving with levels above the legal limit and is associated with more severe punishment. A DUI offense can result in serious consequences such as license revocation, jail time, mandatory rehab, confiscation of license plate or car.

Impaired Driving Prevention: Teaching Teens the Dangers of Driving While High

Although the number of deaths caused by drunk driving is high, there has been a decline in the number of deaths due to alcohol use by increasing the age-limit for drinking to 21 years and the use of other legal deterrents, such as sobriety checkpoints. Besides these legal measures, it is essential to educate young people about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Although there is a perception among the general population that driving while intoxicated is dangerous, individuals using illicit drugs may not believe that using the drug influences their driving ability. These individuals are also more likely to drive while impaired if they perceive a low risk of negative consequences, such as being arrested or being involved in an accident. The attitude of peers towards intoxicated driving also tends to influence the likelihood of driving while intoxicated or accompanying an intoxicated driver as a passenger.

These factors indicate that, besides raising awareness in the general population, it’s crucial to educate teens about the dangers of intoxicated driving. It is essential to provide empirically based information on the real dangers of intoxicated driving to convince young people and change their perceptions. It is also important to emphasize to the youth that impaired driving due to any substance — legal or illegal — is against the law. This is especially relevant with the changing legislation regarding marijuana use. Although recreational marijuana use may be legalized, driving under the influence of marijuana is still illegal in all states.

If you or a loved one suffers from alcohol or drug addiction, The Recovery Village can help. The Recovery Village specializes in the treatment of substance use disorder co-occurring with mental health disorders. Call a representative today for more information.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Deep Shukla, PhD, MS
Dr. Deep Shukla graduated with a PhD in Neuroscience from Georgia State University in December 2018. Read more

National Highway Traffic Service Administration. “2017 Traffic Safety Facts: Young Drivers.” May 2019. Accessed August 21, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Annual Report.” September 2018. Accessed August 21, 2019.

National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Drugged Driving.” March 2019. Accessed August 21, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.