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Marijuana and Actual Driving Performance



DOT HS 808 078 NOVEMBER 1993



How do marijuana's effects on driving performance compare to those of drugs other than alcohol?

 No direct comparisons have ever been made, but many studies employing the standard road tracking test were conducted for measuring other drugs' effects on SDLP during the last decade. The results from a few will be mentioned. Diazepam (Valium) given for one week in a low therapeutic dose (5 mg, thrice daily) caused anxious patients to drive with a mean SDLP about 7 cm higher than their premedication baseline (Van Laar et al., 1992). The same drug and dose given over the same period caused healthy volunteers to drive with a mean SDLP about 6 cm higher than placebo (Van Veggel and O'Hanlon, 1993). Lorazepam (ativan), another anxiolytic, given twice daily for one week in a 1.5 mg dose to healthy volunteers (Volkerts et al., 1988) and a 2 mg dose to patients (Vermeeren et al. 1993), produced an elevation of SDLP of about 10 cm in both cases. Amitriptyline (Elavil), a widely prescribed antidepressant, given in a dose of 50 mg at night and 25 mg in the morning caused healthy volunteers to drive with a mean SDLP about 6 cm higher than placebo (Robbe et al., 1989. Fluraxepam (Dalmane), a hypnotic, was administered to insomniacs and its "hang-over" effects on SDLP were measured 10-11 hours after ingestion. A 15 mg dose of flurazepam elevated mean SDLP by about 4 cm; a 30 mg does, 7 cm. Antihistamines also cause sedation and, consequently, impair road tracking performance. Triprolidine (actifed) increased SDLP by 3.5 cm after a single 5 mg dose (Riedel et al., 1990); and, diphenhydramine 50 mg (Benadryl kapseals) increased SDLP by 4.5 cm (Ramaekers et al., 1992b). This is not to say that all psychotropic drugs produce greater elevations of SDLP than THC. Many in the same and other experiments had less effect than THC did in our studies. These examples are merely cited to indicate that THC's effects as measured in the standard test were in no way unusual. In so far as its effects on SDLP are concerned, THC was just another moderately impairing drug.

The foregoing comparisons might be misleading. THC's effects differ qualitatively from many other drugs, especially alcohol. For example, subjects drive faster after drinking alcohol and slower after smoking marijuana (Hansteen et al., 1976/ Casswell, 1979; Peck et al., 1986; Smiley et al., 1987).. Moreover, the simulator study by Ellingstad et al. (1973) showed that subjects under the influence of marijuana were less likely to engage in overtaking maneuvers, whereas those under the influence of alcohol showed the opposite tendency. Very importantly, our city driving study showed that drivers who drank alcohol over-estimated their performance quality whereas those who smoked marijuana under-estimated it. Perhaps as a consequence, the former invested no special effort for accomplishing the task whereas the latter did, and successfully. This evidence strongly suggests that alcohol encourages risky driving whereas THC encourages greater caution, at least in experiments. Another way THC seems to differ qualitatively from many other drugs is that the former users seem better able to compensate for its adverse effects while driving under the influence. Weil et al. (1968) were among the earliest authors who mentioned the possibility that marijuana users can actively suppress the drug's adverse effects. They presumed that THC's effects were confined to higher cortical functions without any general stimulatory or depressive effect on lower brain centers. According to them, the relative absence of neurological, as opposed to psychiatric, symptoms in marijuana intoxication suggests this possibility. More recently, Moskowitz (1985) concluded that the variety of impairments found after marijuana smoking could not be explained by decrements in sensory or motor functions which led him to hypothesize that some important central cognitive process is impaired by THC, without saying what it is. Identification of THC's site of action would greatly enhance our understanding of the drug's psychopharmacological effects.

Epidemiological research has shown that THC is infrequently detected in the blood of fatally injured drivers as the only drug present. In most cases alcohol is also detected. The effects of the combination of THC and alcohol on actual driving performance have never been studied in the presence of other traffic. Closed-course studies have shown that the effects of both drugs, when taken in combination, are generally additive (Atwood et al., 1981; Peck et al., 1986). This may only be so for those behaviors that are similarly affected by both rugs given separately. Closer examination of the combined use is warranted in those driving situations where both drugs produce qualitatively different effects. It may well be so that alcohol reduces drivers' insight or motivation to the point where they would no longer attempt to compensate for the THC effect. As a result, the combined effects on drivers' performance could well be greater than the sum of either drug acting separately. There is therefore a great need for further research on marijuana and actual driving research, but now extended to the combination of marijuana and alcohol.

In summary, this program of research has shown that marijuana, when taken alone, produces a moderate degree of driving impairment which is related to the consumed THC dose. The impairment manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a steady lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol. Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate where they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort. As a consequence, THC's adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small. Still we can easily imagine situations where the influence of marijuana smoking might have an exceedingly dangerous effect; i.e., emergency situations which put high demands on the driver's information processing capacity, prolonged monotonous driving, and after THC has been taken with other drugs, especially alcohol. We therefore agree with Moskowitz' conclusion that "any situation in which safety both for self and others depends upon alertness and capability of control of man-machine interaction precludes the use of marijuana". However, the magnitude of marijuana's, relative to many other drugs', effects also justify Gieringer's (1988) conclusion that "marijuana impairment presents a real, but secondary, safety risk; and that alcohol is the leading drug-related accident risk factor". Of the many psychotropic drugs, licit and illicit, that are available and used by people who subsequently drive, marijuana may well be among the least harmful. Campaigns to discourage the use of marijuana by drivers are certainly warranted. But concentrating a campaign on marijuana alone may not be in proportion to the safety problem it causes.


One of the program's objectives was to determine whether it is possible to predict driving impairment by plasma concentrations of THC and/or its metabolite, THC-COOH, in single samples. The answer is very clear: it is not. Plasma of drivers showing substantial impairment in these studies contained both high and low THC concentrations; and, drivers with high plasma concentrations showed substantial, but also no impairment, or even some improvement. The first driving study showed that impairment in the road tracking test was nearly the same in the first and second test, executed between 40-60 and 100-120 minutes after initiation of smoking, respectively. Plasma concentrations of THC and THC-COOH, however, were not the same during the tests: both were lower during the second than the first. The same pattern was found for ratings of perceived "high". It has been said that behavioral signs of intoxication, though small, outlast physiological and subjective reactions to THC (Reeve et al. 1983; Yesavage et al., 1985). to examine this hypothesis, future research should extend actual driving performance measurements to 4, 8, 16 and 24 hours after smoking. If driving impairment still occurs after THC disappears from plasma, it could mean that previous epidemiological research has underestimated the proportion of drivers who were driving under the influence of marijuana at the times their accidents occurred.

Mean speed was the only measure of driving performance that was even moderately related to plasma concentrations of the drug. Subjects with higher THC concentrations in plasma drove slower in the standard road tracking test (correlations varying from r = -.18 to r = -.72 between conditions). This effect might have been even more pronounced if the subjects had not been instructed to drive at a particular speed, and if they had had no feedback from the speedometer.



The major conclusions from the present program are summarized as follows:

* Current users of marijuana prefer THC doses of about 300 ug/kg to achieve their desired "high".

* It is possible to safely study the effects of marijuana on driving on highways or city streets in the presence of other traffic.

* Marijuana smoking impairs fundamental road tracking ability with the degree if impairment increasing as a function of the consumed THC dose.

* Marijuana smoking which delivers THC up to a 300 ug/kg dose slightly impairs the ability to maintain a constant headway while following another car.

* A low THC dose (100 ug/kg) does not impair driving ability in urban traffic to the same extent as a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.04g%.

* Drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to over-estimate the adverse effects of the drug on their driving quality and compensate when they can; e.g. by increasing effort to accomplish the task, increasing headway or slowing down, or a combination of these.

* Drivers under the influence of alcohol tend to under-estimate the adverse effects of the drug on their driving quality and do not invest compensatory effort.

* The maximum road tracking impairment after the highest THC dose (300 ug/kg) was within a range of effects produced by many commonly used medicinal drugs and less than that associated with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08g% in previous studies employing the same test.

* It is not possible to conclude anything about a driver's impairment on the basis of his/her plasma concentrations of THC and THC-COOH determined in a single sample.

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