Drunk and Drugged Driving (Important Similarities and Differences)

Drunk and drugged driving are often seen as essentially the same. For example, December is National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month. That makes sense in that they are similar in many ways. But they’re also very different in many important ways. One is that drunk driving continues to drop. But drugged driving is rapidly rising. One reason may be that it’s much easier to be arrested for DUI than for drugged driving.

I. Drunk Driving.

I.   Drunk Driving
II.  Drugged Driving
III. Reduce Risk of Arrest
IV. Resources for Drunk and Drugged Driving

Both drunk and drugged driving are commonly viewed as impaired driving. Of course, drunk driving usually is impaired driving. However, a substantial proportion of alcoholics show no clinical signs of impairment while legally intoxicated. That is, with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or even much higher.

On the other hand, some drivers are impaired with a BAC below 0.08%. That’s why they can be arrested in many states for drunk driving even with a legal BAC. And that’s logical. But the law says that a BAC of 0.08% or higher is per se illegal. That is, that it is in and of itself illegal. It presumes and arbitrarily creates illegality. Therefore, evidence that the driver was not impaired is completely irrelevant.

At the recommendation of the American Medical Association, the illegal BAC was set at 0.15%. Decades later it was lowered to 0.10. It was the reduced to 0.08%. And Utah reduced it in that state to 0.05%.

For law enforcement, it’s “heads I win, tails you lose.” That’s good for traffic safety. But it’s bad for the innocent, unimpaired individual.

Many people find that trade-off acceptable. That may be because people in general highly stigmatize drunk driving.

On the other hand, drugged driving receives little attention. In fact, Monthers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) strongly opposed giving any attention to drugged driving. And it did so for decades

II. Drugged Driving

Driving drugged is a lot more complicated. Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. In fact, the amount of pure alcohol is equivalent in standard drinks of beer, wine, and spirits. It’s six-tents of one ounce. So a breathalyzer can’t tell any difference among them.

But there are dozens of drugs. Some are prescription drugs. Others are illegal. Many can impair driving ability. Some can improve it. A positive drug can often neutralize a negative one. And none can have any effect at low enough amounts.

As with alcohol, drugs can effect different people in different ways. And at different levels.

drunk and drugged driving
Amphetamine capsule

This drug can improve some driving skills. For example, it can improve concentration, increase alertness, and improve divided attention. It can also increase the energy of tired drivers.

On the other hand, it can cause tunnel vision, poor impulse control, irritability, and paranoia. This can lead to aggressive driving.

Amphetamine improve psychomotor skills of sleep-deprived drivers. However, its effects on thinking abilities are inconsistent.

Cannabis (Marijuana)

Marijuana contains a substances called THC. It appears to cause most of the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

drunk and drugged driving
Marijuana leaf

At usual recreational levels, cannabis effects many driving skills. They include drowsiness, reduced coordination, poor concentration, difficulty thinking, and distorted perceptions of time and space. Also disorientation, paranoia, and reduced inhibitions.

Many things influence the specific effects of any given level of THC in the blood. These include the user’s experience and expectations about the effects of marijuana. Also very important is the setting in which it’s used.

The effects of cannabis mostly disappear within three to five hours. However, some of the effects last for as long as 24 hours.

Focusing on the important while disregarding the unimportant is an important skill for safe driving. Long-term users have more trouble doing this. They also process information at a slower speed.

The use of marijuana along with alcohol may cause much greater impairment than either substance alone.

Carisoprodol and Meprobamate
drunk and drugged driving

These drugs, carisoprodol and meprobamate, are both central nervous system depressants. The former is prescribed as a muscle relaxant. The latter is for reducing anxiety.to relax muscles. is also a central nervous system depressant.

Either of these drugs can reduce visual ability, slow thinking and cause confusion. They can also cause sluggishness, tremors, and poor coordination.

The use of any other central nervous system depressant can increase the effects. For example, alcohol can increase the sedation and confusion that carisoprodol can cause. It can also increase the sleepiness, confusion, and incoherence that meprobamate can cause.


drunk and drugged drivingThis drug stimulates the central nervous system. It can increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve mental focus and clarity. It also improves the performance of some simple tasks, creates euphoria, and creates feelings of well-being and strength.

At higher doses, cocaine might cause confusion, disorientation, aggression, hallucinations, and other problems.

But some researchers find no effect on thinking or psychomotor performance. Still others report that cocaine improves attention, learning, and psychomotor performance.

Cocaine reduces the negative effects of sleep deprivation or alcohol intoxication.


Dextromethorphan is an over-the-counter drug for coughs.

Those who take the recommended dose rarely experience any negative effects. However, slight drowsiness or dizziness is a possibility.

Taking higher doses recreationally increases perceptual awareness and creates feelings of elation.

On the other hand, it can cause disorientation and impaired judgment. It may also lead to distorted perception of time and hallucinations.


drunk and drugged drivingDiazepam depresses the central nervous system. Medical practitioners widely prescribe it. Recreationally it increases the effects of alcohol or opioids.

Some cocaine users take it to increase the cocaine level at which seizures occur. Many heroin users take it to increase the effects of heroin. And both cocaine and heroin users often use it to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Unfortunately, a single low dose of diazepam for medical purposes can seriously impair driving skills. Problems can include poor thinking, reduced ability to divide attention, poor attention, lower coordination, and reduced reaction time.

Recreational users generally take higher doses. These can cause slowed reflexes, disorientation, tremor, blurred vision, and hallucinations. Some of these impairments can last for days.

drunk and drugged driving
One brand of diphenhydramine

Diphenhydramine is also a central nervous system depressant. Physicians prescribe it to relieve a number of conditions. A single dose for medical purposes can reduce driving ability for four hours. It reduces driving performance more than alcohol at levels over the legal limit.

Diphenhydramine causes drowsiness, impairs concentration, reduces vigilance and slows reaction time. It also reduces divided attention, impairs the estimation of time, and reduces psychomotor ability.


Ecstasy is a less powerful stimulant than amphetamine. Nevertheless, it can reduce vision, cause tremors, reduced attention, and lessened ability to divide attention.

Predicting the effects of ecstasy on driving performance is hard. It can cause greater driving speed and changes in speed. But it doesn’t degrade all driving tasks. It improves some. The effects of drugs on driving is not simple.

drunk and drugged drivingGamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), gamma butyrolactone  (GBL) and butanediol (BD)

Gamma hydroxybutyrate is a chemical produced naturally within the body. It’s also made in laboratories.

Because of its dangers, it is illegal for recreational use in the U.S. Medically, the  generic name is sodium oxybate withthe  trade name Xyrem. It’s used to treat symptoms of narcolepsy and also to reduce pressure within the skull after head injury.

Illegally, it’s used for weight loss, muscle building, and sexual arousal. It’s commonly used as a “date rape” drug.

GHB, GBL, or BD can cause confusion, impaired memory,  visual hallucinations, and aggressive behavior. Combining with alcohol can increase these effects.

drunk and drugged driving
One brand of ketamine

This drug is an anesthetic, usually used on animals. Recreationally, it can be injected, snorted, or added to beverages, joints or cigarettes.

Street names include cat Valium, green, jet, K, Special K, super acid, and super c.

Ketamine can cause amnesia, hallucinations, and numbness. Ketamine can cause a detached, dream-like state in which the user finds it difficult to move. Therefore, it can be a “date-rape” drug.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

drunk and drugged drivingLSD has no recognized medical value. Users take it for its effects. These may include hallucinations, increased sensations, distorted sense of time, and impulsive behavior. Users may have strange sensations, shifting emotions, a sense of the mind leaving the body, and a blending of senses. For example, hearing colors or seeing sounds.

Clearly, any of these effects could be disasterous in driving.


drunk and drugged drivingThis drug is sometimes used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity.

Methamphetamine is a nervous system stimulant. Its effects can include greater alertness, faster reaction time, poor coordination, paranoia, poor impulse control, aggression, delusions and hallucinations. These effects may increase or decrease driving ability.

People can take methamphetamine by inhaling/smoking, swallowing, snorting, or injecting it. Common names are  meth, speed, crystal, ice, glass, chalk, and Tina.

Opioids (morphine and heroin)
drunk and drugged driving

These drugs are narcotics, which block pain ensations. Milder forms of opioids  can help reduce coughs or ease severe diarrhea. Patients can take opioids by mouth, nasal spray, skin patch, or injection.

The effects of an opioid depends on the dose, the route (mouth, etc.) it’s taken, and tolerance. Both morphine and heroin have similar effects. These include drowsiness, mental confusion, inability to concentrate, distractibility, and slower reaction time.

The effects of heroin can last up to five hours. Those of morphine  can be for up to six hours.

Phencyclidine (PCP)
drunk and drugged driving
Phencyclidine (PCP)

Veterinarians use phencyclidine to tranquilize and to anesthetize animals. Recreational use is for a hallucinogen and psychedelic. Street names include angel dust, hog, lovely, wack, embalming fluid, and rocket fuel.

PCP can greatly impair driving skills. The effects include blurred vision, reduced memory, confused thinking, disorientation, poor concentration, hallucinations and paranoia. Also aggresiveness, lower coordination., and distorted perceptions of space.

Users can suffer a  reduced  reaction time for up to 14 hours.


drunk and drugged drivingThis is a solvent found in paints, glues, and nail polish remover. Printers and tanners also use it in their work. Toluene acts as a nervous system depressant.

The drug  causes confusion, drowsiness, reduced alertness, impaired color vision and reduced ability to concentrate. Also it causes delusions, distorted perceptions of time and space, memory loss, and slowed reaction time.

Zolpidem (and zaleplon, zopiclone)
drunk and drugged driving
One brand of zolpidem

These drugs (zolpidem, zaleplon and zopiclone) depress the nervous system. Doctors prescribe them in very low doses on a short-term basis for severe insomnia.

Each of these drugs can cause drowsiness, slow reflexes, problems thinking clearly, double vision and confusion. Also difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, slow reflexes, poor coordination, and hallucinations. Some of these impairments can last up to eight hours.

Higher doses of zaleplon and zopiclone can cause impairment of driving-related skills for up to ten hours.


The drugs caffeine and nicotine are legal and widely-used. They generally improve driving skills. They also tend to counter some of the negative effects of some other drugs.

III. Reduce Your Risk of Arrest


Breathalyzers are inaccurate. That’s because they don’t actually measure BAC. They only estimate it indirectly. And many things can cause problems with these estimators.

Therefore, it’s wise to keep your BAC well below the legal limit. This reduces the risks of arrest as well as accidents.

Here are some hints.

drunk and drugged driving
Standard Drinks
  • Remember that the alcohol content of standard drinks is equivalent.
  • A good rule of thumb for most people is to have no more than one drink per hour.
  • Avoid punches and drinks in strangely-shaped containers. (That’s because it’s harder to know how much alcohol you’re getting.)
  • Decline offers of drinks that don’t meet your consumption plan.
  • Always eat while drinking. This is very important.
  • Alternate non-alcoholic drinks between alcoholic ones.
  • Never play drinking games or try to keep up with others. (They’ll get the ticket or the hangover. You don’t want either.)
Be Inconspicuous

Be an inconspicuous driver. Here are some tips.

1. Keep your car in excellent mechanical order. For example, make sure brake lights, directional signal lights, and brake lights work.

2. Obey all rules of the road. Don’t go through red lights, stop completely at stop signs, signal for lane changes, etc. Don’t speed, but don’t drive too slowly. Try to drive with the flow of traffic or just a little slower.

3. Consider having a Designated Driver or calling Uber or Lyft. Or be a Designated Driver Yourself. These choices really eliminate your risk of arrest.

drunk and drugged drivingNever, ever take a field sobriety test for drunk or drugged driving. No state requires it. And about one-third of completely sober people (0.00% BAC) fail them under ideal conditions. Discover more at Never Take a Field Sobriety Test Say DUI Lawyers.


Carefully follow the directions and warnings on all over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Avoid illegal drugs.

Here are some hints for avoiding arrest, even if you’re innocent.

First, follow tips #1 through #3 above for avoiding DUI arrest. In addition,

4. Avoid driving in areas where drug dealing is common.

5. Don’t drive between midnight and 4:00 a.m. if you don’t need to.

6. Avoid driving in areas of adult entertainment such as strip or “gentlemens’ clubs” and prostitution.

It’s a good idea to prepare now in case you get pulled over for either drunk or drugged driving. To do so, visit the “Prepare Now” section at the bottom of Detecting Drugged Driving.

IV. Resources for Drunk and Drugged Driving

Listing does not imply endorsement.

Drunk Driving Resources

CDC. What Works: Strategies to Reduce or Prevent Drunk Driving. (webpage)

Films Human Sci. Drinking and Driving. A Crash Course. eVideo. NY: Films Media, 2007.

Goodman, K. and Simon, K. Safe Road Home. Stop Your Teen from Drinking & Driving. NY: Sterling, 200

Hansen, B. Punishment and Deterrence: Evidence from Drunk Driving. Cambridge, MA: Nat Bur Econ Res, 2014. Paper no. W20243. (webpage)

Head, W., and Joye, R. 101 Ways to Avoid a Drunk Driving Conviction. Atlanta: Maximar, 1999.

Kiesbye, S. Drunk Driving. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011.

Mendralla, V. and Grosshandler, J. Drinking and Driving, Now What?  NY: Rosen, 2012. Juv readers.

Nichols, J. and Ross, H. The effectiveness of legal sanctions in dealing with drinking drivers.  NCJ 131534.

Shore, E. & Ferrari, J. Preventing Drunk Driving. Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2014.

Van Tuyl, C. Drunk Driving. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2006.

Drugged Driving Resources

DuPont, R., et al. The need for drugged driving per se laws. Traff Inj Prev, 2012, 13(1), 31-42.

Food Drug Admin. FDA Regulation of Drugs of Abuse Tests. (webpage)

Governors Highway Safety Assn. Drug Impaired Driving. (webpage)

Nat Coun Behav Health. What Do We Really Know About Drugged Driving? (webpage)

Office of Nat Drug Control Policy. Reducing Drugged Driving and Protecting Public Health and Safety. Washington: The Office, 2012.

Guilty [of Drugged Driving] Until Proven Innocent” (video)

 Stop Drugged Driving (DUID) (website)

Talpins, K., et al. The Miami-Dade Protocol: Making Drugged Driving Enforcement a Reality.  J. Alco Drug Depend, 2015, 3, 2012. (online)

Teigen, A. Drugged Driving. Denver: Nat Conf State Legis, 2012.

Other Resources for Drunk and Drugged Driving

Natl Highway Traff Safe Ad (NHTSA) Impaired Driving. 2017.

de la Pena, F. and de la Pena, M. A Layman’s Guide to Criminal Defense. (Know Your Legal Rights from First Contact with Law Enforcement Through Appeal).  Fontana, CA: Terra Fina, 2012.

Sagstetter, R. Rights During a Police Stop / DUI in the United States. What Officers Can and Cannot Do. Denver: Outskirts, 2012.


Note: This website makes no legal or other suggestions or recommendations. For legal opinion or advice about either drunk or drugged driving, always contact a qualified attorney. Do not rely on this or any other website.