Among High School Seniors, Driving After Marijuana Use Surpasses Drunk Driving

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Nearly 1 in 6 high school seniors who responded to a 2011 survey reported that, within the past 2 weeks, they had driven a motor vehicle after using an illicit drug or drinking heavily. Nearly 1 in 4 said they had recently ridden in a car with such a driver. Altogether 28 percent had put themselves at risk, within that short time frame, by being in a vehicle whose driver had been using marijuana or another illicit drug, or had drunk 5 or more alcoholic drinks. These rates had all risen nearly 20 percent in only 4 years, due almost entirely to an increase in driving after smoking marijuana.

See text description Figure. Marijuana-Drugged Driving Rises as Driving After Drinking Declines Among High School Seniors In 2011, high school seniors’ marijuana-drugged driving and riding with marijuana-drugged drivers had risen for 4 straight years, whereas driving under the influence of alcohol or riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol had declined almost continuously since 2001. The two trends crossed in 2008–2009. Driving under the influence of an illicit drug other than marijuana held steady between 2001 and 2011. Statistics are from the Monitoring the Future survey; percentages at the end of lines are the 2011 figures.

Text description of Figure

The line graph shows the proportions of 12th grade students (in percent) driving under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs for each year between 2001 and 2011. The vertical (y)-axis shows the percentage of students and the horizontal (x)-axis the year in which driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs was recorded. As shown by the blue and red lines, indicating marijuana and alcohol use, respectively, while drunk driving gradually fell during this period to 19.2 percent in 2011, after an extended period when driving under the influence of marijuana was lower than drunk driving, marijuana-drugged driving increased, matching drunk driving in 2009 and rising to 23.4 percent in 2011. As shown by the green line, the proportion of students reporting that they had driven under the influence of any illicit drug other than marijuana remained essentially unchanged at around 5 percent during the period surveyed.

Dr. Patrick M. O’Malley and Dr. Lloyd D. Johnston of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, derived these alarming statistics from 22,000 12th graders’ responses to a questionnaire in the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) study. The students’ responses also disclosed that, among 12th graders, driving after marijuana use has become more common than drinking and driving. About 1 in 8 (12.4 percent) reported that within the past 2 weeks they had driven after using marijuana, whereas 1 in 11 (8.7 percent) had driven after drinking alcohol. The prevalence of high school seniors driving after using marijuana had risen sharply from 10.4 percent in the 2008 iteration of the survey, while that of drinking and driving had declined from a peak of 16 percent in 2002 (see Figure). These changes parallel overall trends in students’ use of marijuana and alcohol.

Alcohol’s detrimental effects on road safety are well known, but it has been less clear whether marijuana produces similarly dangerous effects. Although the survey did not capture whether the teens were under the influence of alcohol or marijuana at the time of any traffic incidents they reported being involved in, two of its findings underscore that marijuana use is associated with key indicators of dangerous driving:

  • The high school seniors who drove after marijuana use and after heavy drinking were similarly likely to have had accidents (26.9 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively) and to have received traffic tickets or warnings (42.1 percent and 43.2 percent, respectively) during the 12 months prior to taking the survey.
  • The rates for these misadventures were about twice those of high school seniors who did not use these substances (16.3 percent for accidents; 20.2 percent for tickets or warnings).

Further analysis of the data revealed that 12th graders who were female, with two parents in the home, good grades, or strong religious commitments were less likely to drive after using marijuana or alcohol. Those who reported above-average truancy, spent more evenings out for recreation, worked more hours, or drove more miles were more likely to engage in drugged driving.

African American students were more likely to drive after using marijuana than students of other races, but were not more likely to drive after drinking alcohol. Parental education, geographical region, and population density had no significant bearing on students’ attitudes toward drunk or drugged driving.

Vehicle accidents remain the number 1 cause of death among young Americans, and substance-impaired driving is one of the main culprits. Citing the data in their report, Dr. O’Malley and Dr. Johnston conclude that drunk and drugged driving is widespread among adolescents across schools and regions, and call for measures to reduce such risky behaviors.

Such efforts are already underway: A recent report prepared at NIDA’s request by experts in research, policy, and law enforcement under the auspices of the Institute for Behavior and Health has recommended to evaluate and improve drugged-driving laws, data collection, and educational programs, and to develop and standardize methods for drug testing in drivers. The goal of these proposed measures is to meet the target of the National Drug Control Strategy of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to reduce drugged driving by 10 percent by 2015.

This study was supported by NIDA grant DA001411.


O’Malley, P.M.; Johnston, L.D. Driving after drug or alcohol use by U.S. high school seniors, 2001–2011. American Journal of Public Health 103(11):2027-2034, 2013. Abstract