Drowsy, distracted, drugged, or drunk: Which causes the most accidents?

May 18, 2021 by G.W. Schulz

Car accidents and fatalities are on the rise despite rising vehicle safety standards and major public awareness campaigns about the dangers of drunk and distracted driving. The underlying reasons for these fatalities, however, have undergone significant changes over the years.

Police are increasingly worried about drugged driving as the opioid crisis deepens and as more states move to legalize marijuana. So-called drowsy driving, meanwhile, kills and injures tens of thousands of people every year. Despite known dangers, many drivers continue to text behind the wheel.

It should go without saying that no one drive under any of these conditions. But which exactly is the most dangerous (statistically speaking)? We set out to find an answer.

DUI vs Drowsy Driving

Drowsy or fatigued driving is not against the law in Oklahoma. Yet tens of thousands of accidents nationwide are caused by drivers getting behind the wheel without enough sleep. Scientists say that lack of sleep can sometimes impair your driving ability as much as drinking.

Getting behind the wheel after being awake for 24 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol concentration that’s higher than the legal limit in all 50 states.

Coffee and caffeinated energy drinks make no difference. You can still experience “microsleep” - that momentary loss of consciousness where you close your eyes for a short period when tired. Add a drink or two on top of fatigue and the drowsiness boosts the effects of even small amounts of alcohol.

So which is more dangerous? Driving drunk or driving tired?

Currently: Drunk driving

About 1,200 deadly crashes were attributed to drowsy driving in 2018, according to the latest available federal crash statistics. That same year saw over 10,500 fatal accidents from drunk driving. That’s 10 times more fatalities from drinking than from drowsy driving.

But what about texting and driving? Isn’t it worse now that so many people have smartphones?

DUI versus distracted driving

Smartphone ownership has exploded worldwide over the last decade. So has the phenomenon of “distracted driving” accidents and fatalities. We generally think of distracted driving as texting and driving. But drivers can be distracted in many different ways.

Texting and emailing require more intense focus and can be more deadly than talking on the phone or eating behind the wheel. But anything that takes a driver’s attention from the road can critically impair reaction time.

Car and Driver magazine conducted experiments that show sober distracted drivers take substantially longer to react to alerts than drivers with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. The researchers concluded: “In some situations, device-distracted driving is more dangerous than DUI.”

So is distracted driving more deadly than drunk driving? Not yet.

More than 2,500 deaths were blamed on distracted driving in 2018, according to federal crash statistics. But DUI is still roughly 4 times as deadly.

Texting may not be causing more fatalities, but driving under the influence of drugs must be worse, right? Especially with a national opioid crisis and increasing legalization of marijuana.

DUI versus drugged driving

Driving under the influence of either alcohol or drugs – even when you have a doctor’s prescription or medical marijuana card – results in the same criminal penalties in Oklahoma.

Many common prescription and over-the-counter drugs impair driving ability.

Public safety experts are more concerned than ever about drugged driving amid the opioid crisis and widespread marijuana legalization. Oklahoma is beginning to test marijuana breathalyzers on the state’s roadways for the first time in 2021.

So is drugged driving more dangerous than drunk driving? No, alcohol is still statistically more deadly when it comes to driving.

The biggest US government-sponsored study comparing drunk and drugged driving found that “alcohol remains the main contributor to crash risk. Drugs other than alcohol, and when combined with alcohol, were not a significant factor in crash risk.”

Not only does alcohol lead to a higher number of crashes, it’s more likely to cause severe injuries and fatalities compared with drug-related accidents. The researchers also concluded that different types of drugs have different effects on drivers. Not all of these effects definitively mean a motorist is too impaired to drive a car.

The 4 Ds of Impaired Driving

Despite increases in other categories, alcohol-related auto accidents still pose the most deadly threat to public safety.

But consider all of the possible consequences of impaired driving._ Deadly_ crashes are the most important statistic to be sure, but not the only important statistic.

“Drunk driving is responsible for more fatalities, while distracted driving is responsible for more injuries,” one legal expert points out. “Additionally, the number of drunk driving injuries decreases every year while the number of distracted driving injuries increases.”

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