Drug-impaired driving — especially impairment from cannabinoids — is a growing problem that states have to address, according to the largest study of seriously injured and fatal accident victims released Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The 73-page study of 7,279 accident victims found that 55.8% of those injured or killed had one or more drugs in their system. Cannabinoids, which include marijuana, was the most prevalent at 25.1% positive, followed by alcohol at 23.1%, stimulants at 10.8% and opioids at 9.3%.

A total of 19.9% had two or more drugs in their system.

The study was conducted for nine to 22 months ending in July 2021 in seven jurisdictions with Level 1 trauma centers and medical examiners reporting results: Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Miami; Baltimore; Worcester, Mass.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Sacramento, Calif.

Tuesday’s report is a follow-up to a smaller study two years ago that suggested cannabinoids were a growing problem, and the information is important because of the increasing number of states decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

“It’s incredibly important because we can say cannabis is a growing factor in crashes, and we need to deal with it,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “The data is really important because it tells us what areas we should go after. These are entirely preventable crashes that are the result of risky behavior.”

The association has worked for more than eight years with state safety offices to improve recognition and enforcement procedures to reduce impaired driving. That has led to programs to train drug recognition experts in Wisconsin, teach traffic officers to take blood samples on the road in Georgia and conduct mouth swabs of suspected drug-impaired drivers in Indiana who then get a hospital blood test if the swab is positive.

Besides enforcement, safety experts have teamed with cannabinoid retailers to spread the word about the dangers of driving while high.

“The industry, the retailers agree that if you consume, don’t get behind the wheel,” Fischer said.

As might be expected, the study found impairment numbers were higher for those who died in traffic incidents. Overall, 68.8% of drivers, 68.6% of pedestrians and 56.5% of bicyclists who died had one or more drugs in their system. For drivers, alcohol was the most prevalent at 38.9%, followed by cannabinoids at 31.7% and opioids at 13%.

NHTSA released the study a day before its holiday campaign to encourage sober driving. The campaign, which runs through Jan. 1, has two similar themes: “Drive sober or get pulled over” and “If you feel different, you drive different — Drive high get a DUI.”

Fischer said impaired driving has been a harder sell to the public than drinking and driving because there is no recognized drug standard such as .08 blood alcohol content for drunk driving. Some cannabis users still incorrectly think their motor skills aren’t impaired and believe they can drive safely.

“Alcohol is a mature problem that I think most people recognize,” she said. “Cannabinoids are the new problem that is growing pretty lethal.”

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.