Journal of Addictive Behaviors,Therapy & RehabilitationISSN: 2324-9005

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Research Article, J Addict Behav Ther Rehabil Vol: 6 Issue: 1

Driving while High: College Student Beliefs And Behaviors

Davis SJ* and Sloas KL
Arkansas State University, Arkansas, USA
Corresponding author : Sharon J Davis
Arkansas State University, P.O. Box 1560, State University, AR 72467, USA
Tel: 870-972-3064
Fax: 870- 972- 3962
E-mail: [email protected]
Received: March 08, 2017 Accepted: April 12, 2017 Published: April 19, 2017
Citation: Davis SJ, Sloas KL (2017) Driving while High: College Student Beliefs and Behaviors. J Addict Behav Ther Rehabil 6:1. doi: 10.4172/2324-9005.1000164

Abstract

As more states legalize the medical and recreational use of marijuana, more users may be driving under its influence. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016), drivers under the influence of marijuana are more likely to be involved in traffic fatalities, especially when the driver is a young adult. Attitudes toward marijuana and its risks have been changing over the last few years and more young adults do not see risks in using it. This study sought to examine beliefs about marijuana and driving under the influence in college students. Results showed that college students overwhelmingly view drinking alcohol and driving as unacceptable, but are more tolerant of driving after smoking marijuana. Furthermore, students who have smoked marijuana were more likely to have been a “designated driver” for those under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana. National prevention campaigns need to present facts about marijuana and driving to young adults and teens and more research needs to be done on the risks of driving while high.

Keywords: Marijuana; Alcohol; Traffic safety; Designated driver; Young adults

Keywords

Marijuana; Alcohol; Traffic safety; Designated driver; Young adults

Introduction

Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States [1]. In recent years, the popularity of marijuana has risen along with its availability, social tolerance, and lower prices [2]. This increase is potentially a result of legislative changes that have taken place in regards to medical and recreational marijuana drug policies [3]. The influx of marijuana consumers is likely to increase potential risk behaviors, especially driving under the influence. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana use can slow reaction time, impair judgment of time and distance, and decrease coordination [4]. And, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [5], 10 million Americans aged 12 or older reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs in the past year. Rates of driving under the influence are higher among males and for people between the ages of 18-25. A 2016 NIDA report cited marijuana as the drug most often found in the blood of drivers after alcohol. This same report stated that drivers with marijuana’s active ingredient, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannibol (THC), in their blood were twice as likely to be responsible for crashes with fatalities compared to drug-free drivers [4]. Also, according to NIDA, 1 in 6 college students reported driving under the influence of a substance other than alcohol at least once in the past year [4]. NIDA did note a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) [6] study from 2015 which found no significant increases in traffic crashes related to THC after controlling for driver age, gender, race, and alcohol use [4]. Research on the effects of marijuana use and driving is inconsistent. While some studies show severe impairments on a person’s ability to drive, others show little impairment, if any at all.
Marijuana use has been shown to decrease reaction time and impair judgement and motor coordination [7] found that drivers under the influence of marijuana have trouble staying in the correct lane of traffic and have increased decision time when passing other vehicles. Their studies also found that these drivers need more time to respond to a changing stop light and more time when they need to brake after a light change. Moreover, drivers under the influence of marijuana have a delayed reaction to any obstacles that may be in the road and have a significant increase in the risk of an accident [3].
A controlled experiment [8] compared participants under the influence of marijuana with a control group on critical tracking tests and an fMRI tracking test. They found that smoking marijuana significantly decreased psychomotor skills and altered activity in the brain networks associated with cognition even when THC levels in the blood were relatively low. Study participants who had smoked marijuana prior to task completion were also more likely to report a feeling of confusion, intoxication, and a decrease in their perceived ability to drive.
In contrast, drivers under the influence of marijuana have been associated with driving at lower speeds which could lead to safer driving [3]. In a driving simulator study, most drivers under the influence of marijuana only showed a slight impairment whereas experienced smokers showed little to no impairment. Some researchers believe that marijuana causes drivers to overestimate their impairment; this causes the drivers to drive more cautiously. Other simulation studies showed that marijuana users have a decreased tendency to pass and these drivers also increase the distance between their vehicle and the one in front of them. Studies also show no impairment when detecting and understanding road signs [2].
In 2012, the state of Washington legalized small amounts of recreational use of marijuana and the state’s driving laws were amended to set the limit of THC levels allowed in blood to 5ng/ml for drivers aged 21 and older. Amounts of marijuana allowed by law are 1 ounce of useable marijuana, 16 oz. of marijuana-infused solid products, or 72 oz. of marijuana-infused liquid products. Furthermore, the law states that marijuana can only be possessed by persons over the age of 21. A study [9] measured prevalence rates of marijuana in suspected impaired driving cases in Washington from 2009 to 2013 and found steady rates of THC in drivers from 2009-2012; then in 2012 (when recreational use became legal), there was a significant increase in the number of impaired drivers testing positive for THC.
Studies of driving fatalities involving marijuana have found age to be an important factor. A 2012 report found that one in four fatally injured drivers with illicit drugs in their systems were between the ages of 15 and 24 and that marijuana was the most commonly found illicit drug in these drivers [10]. Furthermore, a 2011 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy [11] found that cannabinoids accounted for 43% of positive drug tests in fatally injured drivers under the age of 24. Despite statistics of this kind, college students tend to view driving under the influence of marijuana as more acceptable and far less risky than alcohol [12]. Danton et al. [13] also found that, while teens and young adults strongly disapproved of driving under the influence of alcohol, they did not express similar disapproval for driving after smoking marijuana. Since the 1980s, designated driver campaigns and the “friends don’t let friends drink and drive” campaigns have been commonplace in schools and public service announcements. Prevention of driving under the influence of marijuana has not received much attention, however. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has called for prioritizing a national campaign aimed at reducing drugged-driving, yet, so far, driving while high has not received much attention and the idea of designated drivers for users of marijuana has not caught on [14].
The purpose of this study was to measure college student beliefs and behaviors involving driving under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. Specifically, this study sought to answer the following research questions:
What do college students believe about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana and how do these beliefs compare to their beliefs about alcohol?
Is there a significant difference in beliefs about driving under the influence of marijuana between those who have ever smoked marijuana and those who have not?
Is there a significant difference in behaviors associated with driving under the influence of marijuana or alcohol between those who have ever smoked marijuana and those who have not?

Methods

A 34-item survey was developed for this study. The survey consisted of items adapted from the Driving under the influence of Alcohol and Marijuana: Beliefs and Behaviors survey developed by the Foundation for Traffic Safety (2016), items adapted from the Washington State Roadside Survey (2014), and some additional items developed by the authors. The survey was presented online to undergraduate students at a mid-size university in the Mid-South United States. A total of 280 participants completed the study. Of these, 75.1% (n=211) were female and 24.6% (n= 69) were male. Ages of participants ranged from 18-29 with a mean age of 19. The majority 67.6% (n= 190) were freshman, 17.8% (n= 50) were sophomores, 8.2% (n= 23) were juniors, and 5.7% (n= 16) were seniors. The sample consisted mostly of Caucasian/White students (79.7%) while 12.1% were African American/Black, 2.8% were Hispanic/Latino, 3.6% were Asian/Pacific Islander and 1.4% were “other”. This is representative of the general population of this region of the country.
Study participants were asked to complete the online survey which consisted of items about their past marijuana use, drinking and driving and driving under the influence of marijuana behaviors, their beliefs about the effect of alcohol and marijuana on driving, and whether they had ever been a designated driver for others under the influence. This study did receive Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval prior to administration and all study participants were informed of the voluntariness and confidentiality of their participation.

Results

More than half (58.7%, n165) of the participants stated they had never smoked marijuana while 39.9% (n=112) stated that they had, at least once, smoked it. Three participants (1.1%) declined to answer this item. And 19.6% (n=55) reported that in the past year they had driven within two hours of smoking marijuana.
Several items on this survey were used to measure student beliefs about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. Although roughly 20% of the participants admitted to driving within two hours of smoking marijuana in the past year, 24.2% responded to the follow-up question “when you used marijuana and drove, how do you think it affected your driving?” It could be that the additional respondents had driven after smoking marijuana, just not within two hours. Results of this question are in Table 1.
Table 1: How did marijuana affect your driving?
Additionally, participants were asked to rate how they thought marijuana, in general, affected a person’s driving within one hour after smoking it. Five participants declined to answer this item. The results of the responses gathered are in Table 2.
Table 2: How does marijuana affect a person’s driving within one hour of smoking it?
Participants were also asked to describe how acceptable they feel it is to drive under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. Overall, more participants felt that driving under the influence of alcohol was much more unacceptable than driving after smoking marijuana. The results are in Table 3.
Table 3: Acceptability of driving under the influence of alcohol vs. marijuana.
In order to test for significant differences between those who had ever smoked marijuana and those who had not, an independent samples t-test was used with group A defined as “those who had smoked marijuana” and group B defined as “those who had never smoked marijuana”. T-tests were used to measure differences between the two groups on the following variables: 1) dangerousness of driving on marijuana, 2) acceptability of driving on marijuana, 3) having been a designated driver for someone on marijuana, 4) having been a designated driver for someone on alcohol. Significant differences were found for each variable. For variable 1, participants were asked to rate the amount they agreed or disagreed with the item “it is just as dangerous to drive after smoking marijuana as it is after drinking alcohol”. Those who had never smoked marijuana were significantly more likely to agree with this statement (t=-6.477, p<.001). A significant difference was also found on variable 2, with those who had never smoked marijuana having lower means of acceptability for a driver using marijuana within one hour of driving (t=7.917, p<.001). Also, group A (those who had smoked marijuana) was significantly more likely to have been a designated driver for someone who was high on marijuana (t=4.39, p< .001) and for someone under the influence of alcohol (t=4.48, p<.001).

Discussion

As more states legalize the medical or recreational use of marijuana, more drivers may be driving under its influence. Study results on the effects of marijuana on driving are mixed yet drivers involved in traffic fatalities are more likely to have measureable amounts of THC in their blood. According to Battistella et al. [8], the negative effects of marijuana on a driver’s ability to safely drive is more likely to occur within the first hour of using. Nearly 20% of the college students in this study reported that during the past year they had driven within one hour after smoking marijuana, yet 10% felt marijuana had no effect on their driving and nearly 4% felt marijuana actually improved their driving. This is the age group most at risk for traffic fatalities involving illicit drugs, especially marijuana. When asked about marijuana’s effect on a person’s driving, in general, 10.7% stated it does not affect driving, but a much greater percent (80.8%) of all study participants believe marijuana makes a person more likely to cause a traffic accident. On the other hand, those who had smoked marijuana at least once during their lifetime rated the acceptability of driving after smoking marijuana significantly higher than those who had never smoked it. These results suggest that having used marijuana results in more acceptances of people driving under its influence. More research is needed on how much of marijuana’s effect on driving is based on driver perception and how much is actually from the drug itself, but prevention specialists and educators may want to target anti-driving-while-high campaigns to those who are already using the substance.
When compared to beliefs about marijuana, participant beliefs about the dangerousness of alcohol and driving were consistently higher. Overall, most participants believe it is completely unacceptable to drive under the influence of alcohol (93.2%). Since the 1980s, public messages about the dangers of drinking and driving have been prolific. Prevention campaigns of this kind have targeted individuals of all ages through television, radio and billboard ads, and the term “designated driver” has become part of popular culture vocabulary. A study by Danton et al. [13] found that young adults, including those in college and those not in colleges reported overwhelming disapproval for drinking and driving. Similar disapproval rates for driving under the influence of marijuana were not found, however. Nationwide, attitudes toward the overall benefit of marijuana is high and the dangers associated with its use are declining. These attitudes are not likely to change as medical marijuana becomes legal in states across the country and as more individuals contemplate the necessity of laws prohibiting its recreational use. As more people use marijuana, more research will be needed on its actual effect on driving. As of now, so many mixed results exist it is hard to form a solid prevention message; however, if marijuana use does negatively impact drivers, then we need a nationwide campaign to get the message out: “friends don’t let friends drive high”. It is interesting that while those who had used marijuana in this study were more accepting of persons driving under its influence, they were also more likely to have been a designated driver for someone using marijuana. This discrepancy in attitude and behavior is noteworthy and perhaps a sign that when in an actual situation where a friend may drive while high, persons are more likely to intervene to stop the behavior. Large scale anti-drinking and driving campaigns have worked to reduce drinking and driving; the nation needs to consider a similar strategy aimed at marijuana.

Conclusion

While the findings in this study were significant, they may not be generalizable to the overall population due to the small and limited nature of the sample. The danger of driving under the influence of marijuana is topic which needs more research. As legislation changes and marijuana use becomes socially acceptable, more people are likely to use it making this a topic of interest to future researchers, clinicians, and legislators.

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