Mention impaired driving, and most people immediately think of alcohol. After all, in the U.S., 32 people a day are killed in motor vehicle crashes involving a drunk driver (that’s one death every 45 minutes), according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC).
Even in 2020, when travel was restricted for much of the year due to COVID-19, alcohol was named a factor in about 30% of all traffic-related deaths for the year.
Those numbers don’t include drug-impaired drivers, which are much harder to account for. There are tests to determine the use of many types of drugs, but determining what level of a drug in the system causes impairment is a problem.
Alcohol impairment can be tied to the amount of alcohol present in the blood, while other substances, such as marijuana, can’t. Some people with high amounts of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes euphoria, in their systems can function as well as someone with none, while others are impaired with a very small amount in their systems.
A CDC survey in 2020 that allowed anonymity for respondents found that 7.2% of respondents said they had driven while under the influence of alcohol in the past year. Another 4.2% admitted driving while impaired by marijuana. Nearly 1% drove while under the influence of illicit drugs other than marijuana. The “illicit” drugs counted in the survey don’t include legally prescribed and over the counter (OTC) medications, many of which can also cause impairment.
On any given day, if you’re driving in moderate traffic, there’s a good chance that a motorist within your field of vision is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
However, alcohol and drugs aren’t the only impairments faced by drivers.
Increasingly, drivers are under the influence of their cellphones or other distractions. Texting while driving may not be considered “impairment,” but the results can be just as deadly. Alcohol and drugs slow reaction times and alter perceptions. So does focusing on a text message, email or video clip on a phone.
The CDC defines three main types of driver distraction:
- Visual (taking your eyes off the road);
- Manual (taking your hands off the wheel); and
- Cognitive (taking your mind off of driving).
Distracted drivers are a factor in about 3,000 deaths per year in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Cellphones aren’t the only things that distract a driver’s attention. Changing radio stations can involve taking a hand off the wheel and your eyes (and mind) off the road. So can entering a location into the GPS, answering a satellite message from a dispatcher and reading every word on an interesting billboard.
Professional drivers understand the need to avoid impairment, including distractions, while driving. They also understand that the other motorists, including other truckers, may not be as diligent about remaining impairment-free. It’s a problem every driver deals with.
There are no laws or company policies that can completely eliminate impaired driving. Every driver must make a personal decision to only drive when they are 100% capacity, both physically and mentally. Anything less puts the driver and others on the highway in jeopardy.
For some, it’s a commitment to never drive after drinking or indulging in recreational drugs. But the decision can be much more complicated than that. For example, a driver who suffers from chronic pain and treats the condition with medicine that contains opioids, such as hydrocodone or oxycontin, must carefully monitor when the drugs are taken and make wise choices as to whether it’s safe to continue driving. Holding off on taking the medication could mean enduring more pain, but safety is a bigger goal.
OTC drugs often have effects that can impair driving. Some popular sinus medications can cause drowsiness. In fact, the active ingredient in Benadryl (diphenhydramine HCL) is also the active ingredient in sleep aids such as Unisom and Zzzquil. Drivers who use those little pink pills for sinus relief may realize they’re actually taking sleeping pills!
When using any kind of medication, it’s important to know what to expect from the drug and how it impacts you as an individual. One person may function normally after a prescribed dose, while another reacts quite differently. Always check the warning labels and if you’re taking the medication for the first time, try to do so when starting a break period. If you’re driving and you begin feeling the effects of the medication, park as soon as you can.
Fatigue is another often-overlooked impairment. Studies have shown that fatigue can impact perception and reaction times as much as alcohol can. Drivers who are concentrating on getting to a customer on time or to the truck stop while parking is still available may not realize how much their driving skills suffer.
When illness strikes, the misery of trying to function while feeling less than your best can distract you from the task of driving. The physical ability to drive the vehicle might remain, but the ability to identify and react to hazards can suffer.
Emotions can also impact driving function. The more intense those emotions are, the more they distract from the important job of driving safely. Receiving bad news, anger over treatment received from a customer, a phone argument with a spouse — any of these can trigger emotions that cause safe driving to drop to a lower priority. It may be best to park it for a while and deal with an issue before driving again.
While pronouncements such as “don’t drink and drive” aren’t bad advice, the truth is that professional drivers make decisions all day long that can impact the safety of their driving. Whether to take that pill, make that phone call or push on for another hour are examples of decisions that can be life-changing — or even life-ending.
Linda Garner-Bunch has been in publishing for more than 30 years. You name it, Linda has written about it. She has served as an editor for a group of national do-it-yourself publications and has coordinated the real estate section of Arkansas’ only statewide newspaper, in addition to working on a variety of niche publications ranging from bridal magazines to high-school sports previews and everything in between. She is also an experienced photographer and copy editor who enjoys telling the stories of the “Knights of the Highway,” as she calls our nation’s truck drivers.