Drug-driving behaviour: what users believe and the truth

Don't-drug-drive warning sign, pill images inside red triangle.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 30 December 2021

People do not know that drug-driving affects safety. They do not think about the consequences and legal penalties. We expose the myths and reveal the truth.

You might want to know about some research that’s recently been done on drug users and their beliefs about drug-driving.

Big Island, an independent research company, were asked by the Department for Transport to find out from users of cannabis, cocaine and party drugs (mostly MDMA)

  • how they believe drug use affects their driving
  • how they believe the law relates to them as drug-drivers.

Big Island found that, as much as the guys who took part in the study wanted to know the truth, there were a lot of misconceptions about their drug-driving and how the law would deal with it.

Scarily, this is what the study found.

People did not think their driving was seriously impaired when they'd taken drugs

'When you take drugs you can drink more and get away with it. The drugs help your body cancel the alcohol out.'

  • Cannabis users tended to think their drug use kept them calm.
  • Cocaine users thought it kept them alert.
  • MDMA users thought they still had some clarity when they were high.
  • Cocaine users thought their drug use would ‘sharpen them up’ after a couple of drinks and help them to stay in control.
  • MDMA users were often still quite high when they drove home.

Their friends saw it as an acceptable situation

'When I’m on MDMA I feel really helpful. I was offering to drive my friends and I was excited about it. They were happy to be in the car.'

Many did not see the drugs as relevant to the situation; they’d just be out chilling with their mates.

Compared with drink-driving – which was seen as reckless and selfish – drug-driving was seen as sociable and helpful to friends.

They did not think about the consequences of crashing

'You get in the car; you think "I’ll take my chance". There’s not that moral level. You don't think about hurting someone else.'*

  • They associated drink-driving with crashing, but they believed it rarely happened when the driver had been taking drugs.
  • They had not heard about crashes involving drug users (public information campaigns and so on), so they believed it did not happen.
  • The idea of killing themselves and/or others did not really cross their minds.

They had not thought about the potential penalties

'It’s funny that no-one knows about this. There’s no education about it. I haven’t got a clue!'

  • There was no real awareness of the legal penalties. Some were not even sure whether drug-driving was illegal.
  • Most users had no idea what the police would do if they pulled them over. They knew that there’s no ‘drug breathalyser’ but they could not say what the alternative would be, or even whether the police would do anything if they detected drugs.
  • Some thought that the penalties should perhaps be the same as those for drink-driving – although they argued that the impairment was probably less.​

They were vague about the threat of being caught

  • Many had an instinctive fear of being caught, but they thought it probably would not happen.
  • Going from a safe, accepting environment (like a party or a club) into the real world was scary for some drug users.
  • They believed they would not be driving conspicuously and would be unlikely to see or attract the attention of the police.
  • They were vaguely worried about the possibility of a conviction and the effect this would have on their lives and their career opportunities.

The people who took part in this study knew they were off the mark and wanted to know the truth – for their own sake and their friends’ sake – which is why we’ve written this piece.

Have a think about your own behaviour when it comes to drug-driving. If you agree with any of the statements above, it’s probably a good idea to find out the truth.

You can read the facts about drug-driving on the Think! drug-driving pages

*In fact, in 2012, there were 28 fatal accidents (2% of all fatal road accidents) involving a drug-driver, and 622 casualties.

For more stats on drug-driving, download the Drug Driving Review for the Road Safety Observatory (PDF) from the ROSPA wesbite.

Tell us what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Do you share any of these beliefs?
  • Do you think you know better?
  • How can we help get the truth across?

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