Impaired Driving in its many forms…

Until very recently, “Impaired Driving” was often interpreted as “Drunk Driving” or “driving under the influence of alcohol”.  I think it means a lot more than that and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) agrees. According to their website, they state:

“Impaired driving is dangerous and is the cause of more than half of all car crashes. It means operating a motor vehicle while: affected by alcohol; affected by illegal or legal drugs; too sleepy; distracted, such as using a cell phone or texting; having a medical condition which affects your driving.”

Where I disagree is their inclusion of “distracted driving.”  I think they chose to include it since the driver could be suffering from “inattention blindness” where their mind is so hopelessly preoccupied that they don’t recognize traffic signals and conditions properly.

I feel that there is a fundamental difference between distracted driving and impaired driving:

  • Distracted drivers are fully capable of driving well, but choose to ignore their duty to drive properly
  • Truly impaired drivers incapable of driving well because they’re tired, drugged, drunk or ill, but choose to drive anyway

In reality, neither should get behind the wheel, and both choose to endanger themselves and other drivers. 

Driving presents a unique challenge each time we get behind the wheel.  To be ready to handle the dynamic situations we’ll encounter when driving, we ought to be in top condition. 

Our bodies and minds can be affected by a wide range of factors: being tired; being physically ill; suffering from allergies; coping with chronic physical conditions; taking over the counter medications; drinking alcohol; smoking marijuana; taking prescription medications or abusing illicit drugs.

These factors most commonly contribute to collisions by impairing the driver’s judgment and/or reaction times. 

The universal precaution for impaired driving is to avoid becoming impaired in the first place.  This may translate into getting enough sleep and eating a proper diet to avoid fatigue, getting a flu shot annually to lessen the impact of symptoms, avoiding the intake of alcohol or other “recreational” drugs such as marijuana, or asking extra questions of the doctor and pharmacist when dealing with prescribed medications for illnesses or chronic conditions. 

For regulated drivers (i.e. those subject to FMCSRs), physical or medical qualification is an important aspect of becoming and remaining qualified to drive.  For most regulated drivers, this translates to visiting the doctor for a physical once every two years (or more frequently depending on your condition and the doctor’s findings).  In some cases, a failure to meet the minimum requirements (or any discovered fraud surrounding these issues) could lead to disqualification.  On November 30, 2012, the FMCSA issued a press release (Link) stating that it had ordered a driver to cease driving “due to his failure to exercise an appropriate duty of care to the motoring public regarding his medical conditions.”

The FMCSA placed the driver out of service “…after agency investigators found serious safety concerns surrounding his medical condition and qualifications under his commercial driver’s license (CDL) issued by the State of Georgia.” 

Specifically, “…Investigators discovered that Felton failed to disclose to a medical examiner his disqualifying medical conditions, including his medications prescribed in treating those conditions.”

The news release concludes with this message;

“This case sends a clear message that we will use every tool at our disposal to identify and remove from our roads unsafe operators,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “Our agency is committed to raising the bar for commercial vehicle and driver safety.”

This month’s Ten-Minute Training Topic is on Impaired Driving and includes a driver handout, manager’s supplemental report, and a pair of slideshows to facilitate educational opportunities with drivers.  This is distributed to all of the supervisors who receive monthly summary reporting through our Safety Hotline program — in place at more than 3,800 active clients and covering about a quarter million commercial vehicles.

We’ll also be looking at individual forms of impairment more closely through our blog site over the next several weeks.


2 thoughts on “Impaired Driving in its many forms…

  1. I for one whole heartedly disagree with your (or NIH) definition on impaired driving. Impaired driving is caused when a person is physically or mentally impaired by alcohol, drugs, or physical ailment. That’s it! It’s not that complicated. It seems as though the National Institute of Health (NIH) is out of their league on this one. Distracted driving IS NOT an impairment – period. Sleep or tired drivers are “fatigued” drivers, NOT impaired. Talking or texting on a cell phone falls under distracted driving.

    Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) conducted a seven year “Distracted Driving Study” that was completed in 2010. You can Google VTTI Distracted Driving Study and get a wealth of information on this issue.

    While texting increases a person’s chance 93 times of being involved in a crash, talking on a hand-held cell phone only increases their chance by 1time. Talking on a hand-free phone is .55 times greater chance, and on a C.B. is .44 times greater. The phone is not the problem people. The problem is an action a driver performs that causes him to take his eyes off the road, i.e,: reading a map, using a calculator, using an electronic dispatch system while driving, or reaching for items in the truck. All of these task require eyes to be taken off the roadway and make them “high risk” task. Talking on a cell phone is not high risk.

    The study also stated 80% of crashes are caused by distracted driving. NIH is really off base on this one.

    Alan Caviness

    • Thank you for your comment, I think you and I actually agree on just about every point you’ve offered in your response. In fact, I’m sorry for any confusion I may have offered since in my article I stated that I too DISAGREE with National Institute of Health — they should NOT have included distracted driving in their definition of “Impaired Driving”. The only area where I might split hairs is over fatigued driving as a form of impaired driving when the root cause isn’t simply being sleepy, but a serious medical issue (such as undiagnosed sleep apnea, etc).

      I am well aware of VTTI’s naturalistic study and received a personal briefing on the program by Dr. Jeff Hickman who shared a lot of the raw footage to help illustrate the very points you’ve offered in your response.

      Mr. Caviness, I think we agree on much more than you give us credit for…please consider reading some of our other articles and I think you’ll see we’re on the same team with regard to protecting the wellness of hard working drivers!

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