CNN Erroneously Claims Illegal Drugs Are a 'Deadlier' Highway Hazard Than Alcohol

The network misreads federal data, conflating positive drug tests with impairment.



CNN claims "a new report found" that "driving under the influence of drugs was deadlier in 2015 than driving while drunk." That is not what the new report found, and CNN's confused, alarmist story is a good illustration of how not to cover this subject.

The report, an updated version of a guide originally published by the Governors Highway Safety Association in 2015, summarizes data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). In 2015, the introduction notes, FARS "reported that drugs were present in 43% of the fatally-injured drivers with a known test result, more frequently than alcohol was present." That comparison was the basis for CNN's assertion that drugs are now "deadlier" than alcohol and for its headline, which says "drugged driving surpasses drunken driving among drivers killed in crashes." But neither claim is supported by the FARS data, because saying "drugs were present" is not the same as saying they impaired the driver or played any role in the crash.

CNN reporter Robert Jimison would have realized that if he had read the report a little more carefully. "FARS records only drug presence, not drug concentrations analogous to BAC [blood alcohol concentration] levels for alcohol," notes the author, traffic safety researcher James Hedlund. In fact, the goal of establishing "drug concentrations analogous to BAC levels for alcohol" has proved persistently elusive. On that point, Hedlund quotes the "generally accepted" conclusion of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (where he used to work): "At the current time, specific drug concentration levels cannot be reliably equated with a specific degree of driver impairment." A 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office likewise noted that "identifying a link between impairment and drug concentrations in the body, similar to the 0.08 BAC threshold established for alcohol, is complex and, according to officials from the Society of Forensic Toxicologists, possibly infeasible."

In short, FARS does not collect information about drug concentrations, which in any case cannot be reliably related to impairment. "The relations between a drug's presence in the body, its concentration, measured in blood, breath, saliva or urine, and its impairing effects are complex and not understood well," Hedlund writes. "A drug may be present at low levels without any impairing effects. Some drugs or metabolites may remain in the body for days or weeks, long after any impairment has disappeared. In particular, marijuana metabolites can be detected in the body for weeks after use." That last point is crucial to understanding the data cited by CNN, since marijuana is by far the most commonly detected illegal drug, and "the FARS marijuana codes do not distinguish clearly between the active impairing component THC and various inactive and non-impairing metabolites." Even when active THC is detected, the level may be too low to affect driving ability.

Despite all those caveats, Jimison repeatedly conflates drug "presence" with impairment, calling drivers who test positive "drugged" and saying they were "under the influence of drugs." Although that mistake is common in reporting on "drugged driving," Jimison really should have known better. Not only did Hedlund's report clearly explain why the premise of CNN's story is wrong; sources Jimison interviewed (including Hedlund, who observes that "drug impairment is a complicated topic") tried to warn him away from claiming that illegal drugs pose a bigger highway hazard than alcohol does.

"Some safety experts caution that drunken driving remains a bigger problem," Jimison writes in the second sentence of his story, right after claiming that "driving under the influence of drugs was deadlier in 2015 than driving while drunk." Unless something very unusual was happening in 2015, those statements are blatantly inconsistent. Later in the story, Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, tells Jimison "there's no question that alcohol remains our biggest highway safety problem." That can't possibly be true if, as Jimison informs us, other drugs account for more highway fatalities.

If CNN's interpretation is wrong, what conclusions can we safely draw from the FARS numbers? The share of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs other than alcohol rose from 28 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2015, which suggests (consistent with survey data) that drug use rose during that period, although we don't know the extent to which that increase translated into a larger number of dangerously impaired drivers. Marijuana (including inactive metabolites and nonimpairing THC levels) was detected in 36 percent of the drug-positive drivers, amphetamine in 9 percent. The largest category was "other," a hodgepodge of 78 substances, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines as well as illegal intoxicants, that together were detected in 55 percent of the drug-positive drivers.

Assuming the number of marijuana-impaired drivers has increased during the last decade or so, how big a threat do they represent? Hedlund summarizes the evidence on that point, including laboratory studies that show marijuana undermines driving ability, although not as dramatically as alcohol does. Measuring the impact of such impairment in the real world is tricky. A landmark NHTSA study published in 2015 found no statistically significant difference in crash risk between THC-positive and THC-negative drivers once the data were adjusted for confounding variables (age and sex in particular). Other estimates of the increase in crash risk attributable to marijuana intoxication range from 22 percent to 92 percent, either of which qualifies as "a slightly increased risk," as Hedlund notes. By comparison, a BAC of 0.10 percent (which used to be the cutoff for driving under the influence in the U.S.) is associated with a 400 percent increase in crash risk.

Marijuana's impact on traffic safety is obviously relevant in evaluating the effects of legalization, assuming that legalization increases consumption and some of that consumption occurs within an hour or two of driving. If stoned drivers are simply added to drunk drivers, traffic fatalities could rise, especially if there is an increase in the number of drivers who are simultaneously stoned and drunk—a dangerous combination, since the two drugs have a synergistic effect on driving ability. But if stoned drivers replace drunk drivers, the net result could be fewer traffic fatalities, since alcohol impairs driving ability much more than marijuana does.

These issues are worth discussing and investigating. Sloppy coverage like CNN's obscures distinctions that are essential to that task.

NEXT: Trump Thought Presidency 'Would Be Easier,' Gun Sales Down From 2016 Peak, Against Another Korean War: A.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Yawn; CNN, facts, thought, no relationship here, move along.
    Oops, I see we are requested to be civil in our comments (?). So move along, please.

  2. All is far in drug love and drug war. When was the last time you saw an accurate or evenhanded news story on recreational drug use?

    1. When was the last time you saw an accurate and evenhanded news story on ANYTHING? And, mind, I’m not talking about Leftwing bias (although there’s plenty of it at CNN and elsewhere); unbiased news reporting isn’t possible. Nobody could fit all the data connected to even the smallest story into deliverable form, nor would we tolerate such a firehose of mixed trivia and relevance if they did.

      The story has a point of view. It was always going to have a point of view. The problem with it isn’t its bias (which can be figured) but its stupidity. It is badly researched and sloppily written.

  3. CNN’s confused, alarmist story is a good illustration of how not to cover this subject.

    Get back to me when you’ve got the kind of audience and income CNN’s got. “Confused and alarmist” is what sells, it’s precisely the way to cover this subject and every other subject as well. “Just the sober facts” takes about two minutes to report and leaves no room for endless argument and speculation – CNN’s got to fill that airtime somehow and they’ve got to attract eyeballs the whole time. It’s not their job to inform the public, it’s their job to entertain.

    1. Not that Reason doesn’t stoop to sensationalism from time to time.
      Say, whatever happened to all that Puppycide??

      1. Pretty sure it’s still with Balko and it’s still as bad as ever.

  4. I’d say motor vehicles are probably the deadliest highway hazard.

    1. Old joke I learned while living on a reservation.

      Q: Which General killed the most Indians?

      A: General Motors

    2. You for gun control as well? I would say drivers, not cars.
      People do things, things do not do things.

      1. You may be unfamiliar with these things I like to call “jokes”.

  5. The network misreads federal data, conflating positive drug tests with impairment.

    Yeah, they just misread the data. CNN would never knowingly publish something false just to create a narrative. Never.

    1. Standard simple macro: misspoke = lies, misread = lies.

  6. It’s all bullshit stacked upon bullshit.

    As others have already noted here, there is no reliable standard for impairment when it comes to blood levels of myriad drugs. Even a moderate amount of lorazepam, in a chronic user, might not be as debilitating as a single dose of Dramamine to the guy who thought he wasn’t going to have to drive.

    But beyond that even the BAC, while codified, is equally arbitrary.

    1. And that is most definitely the case for the most popular drug after alcohol.

      I have absolutely no worries about people who smoke weed regularly driving. But I wouldn’t encourage someone who rarely does to drive within a few hours of partaking.

      I’ve seen a few studies that support this (though they were small, so I don’t know how valid the results are) and my extensive personal experience agrees.

      1. 2nd most popular drug, worldwide? I think it might be acetaminophen (paracetamol). Then maybe nicotine. Cannabis I think would have to rank 4th, tops. If you count populrity by regularity of consumption, then probably antihypertensives don’t rank up there as individual drugs because there are so many of them.

  7. Maybe illegal drugs should spend a shit ton on television advertising

    1. I’m imagining drug cartels buying ads:

      “Cocaine: get some. Recommended by Sigmund Freud.”
      “Have you considered the benefits of adding heroin to your daily routine?”

  8. Oh CNN, is there nothing you can do right in Trump’s America?

  9. What a bunch of clueless half-wits, fuck them.

  10. I saw that story, but refused to click it because it smelled like drug war propoganda. Fuck you CNN and now I punish your dishonesty with banishment for awhile.

    1. I was going to watch it. But, I switched away and did not go back, unintentionally. I thought it was BS the minute they said it!

  11. the goal of establishing “drug concentrations analogous to BAC levels for alcohol” has proved persistently elusive.

    Well, duh, that’s because the interpret’n of alcohol blood concentrations as measures of impairment are arbitrary too!

  12. If it were really about impairment, we would not let elders drive. They wake up on a good day “impaired” as compared to a sober 40 year old whose own reflexes are already waning compared to their 18 year old self. Then these elders take fistfuls of pills, and wander out into the world behind the wheel of vehicles they frankly can no longer control adequately.

    If it were about impairment, we’d start with taking the licenses of everyone over 70, and test those over 60 monthly.

    But it isn’t about safety and it isn’t about impairment, it is about control.

    1. But it isn’t about safety and it isn’t about impairment, it is about control.


  13. Could it be that drug detection technology is more sensitive now, hence the increase in drug detection in the blood of crash victims?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.