Investigating Drugged Driving

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It looks like a spaceship on stilts. The NADS-1 is an advanced driving simulator, completely enclosed, that gives participants a realistic experience of driving. This virtual environment can be set with various scenarios and measure responses down to a fraction of a second. And researchers hope it will tell them something important about drugged driving.

There’s a problem in most states with prosecuting drugged drivers – we know they are out there, but how to prove in court that the drugs ruined their ability to drive? A blood test will show the presence of some substance, and drivers sometimes confess to using, but, unlike the standard blood alcohol content used for alcohol, there isn’t an easy way to say with any certainty just how much someone was impaired. Researchers at the University of Iowa, with the blessing of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, hope to change this.

The study will examine how much marijuana has to be smoked for driving ability to be degraded and will include blood and other testing to measure drug levels in the body.

One hurdle for investigators was the way marijuana varies in potency by strain. Joints from different varieties will have different amounts of THC in them. To overcome this, the study will use a “standard marijuana” obtained from the federal government. The weed is grown under federal authority at government run “pot farms” specifically for the purpose of supplying the few licensees allowed to use marijuana under federal guidelines.

If this study works out, it will answer several questions legislatures would like more information on. For example, what is the correlation between driving performance and the amount of marijuana consumed? How good are field tests in determining actual blood levels? Is there a clear relationship between the experience of being “high,” the ability to drive, and the measured amount of THC?

In the future, other studies may examine other substances, such as performance while under the influence of cocaine, amphetamine or other drugs.

Police officers currently charge impaired drivers by observing their behavior on the road, but ideally a system of statutory guilt would be put in place. In other words, for alcohol, drunk driving is defined by a blood alcohol of 0.08 or more – regardless of how poorly a driver is actually doing on the road. This number is based on performance measures across a large population of drinking drivers and represents a solid basis for all the consequences that flow from a DWI conviction. A similar standard for marijuana would not only allow for better prosecution of the guilty, but more justice for the not-guilty as well. In an era where medical marijuana is legal to consume, we don’t want to falsely prosecute patients who merely “smell of weed” but aren’t impaired.

More about the study can be found here.

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