According to post-mortem data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  18 % of drivers who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 tested positive for drugs.  The NHTSA report examined drug use by drivers involved in crashes in the United States.

However, the NHTSA stressed in its report that drug involvement does not mean the driver was impaired or that drug use was the cause of the crash. While the percentage is the same as it was in 2008, it represents an increase from the 13% figure found in 2005, 15% in 2006 and 16% in 2007.

The drug data was collected by states and analyzed by NHTSA as part of its Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The types of drugs recorded in FARS include both illicit drugs, as well as legally prescribed drugs and over-the-counter medicines.

The implications for drug-related driving safety are far reaching.  Earlier this fall, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) released final fatality data from 2009, which has since been summarized in various categories by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Consumer Reports reviewed the IIHS findings and its own past reports to offer a look back at roadway risks last year, while highlighting areas where lives can be saved in the future.

In particular, crash deaths related to alcohol consumption declined in the 1980s, but there has been little progress made since the mid-1990s. In 2009, there were 10,839 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, marking a decline of 7.4% from 2008. That’s consistent with the decline in overall deaths from 2008 to 2009, as those are down over 9%.

Research by the IIHS estimates that 7,440 driver deaths would’ve been prevented if blood-alcohol content was below .08%. According to Consumer Reports, ignition interlock systems are one way to combat the problem, and the NHTSA is reviewing ways to help states increase interlock use and strengthen their laws. Many people who are involved in alcohol-related crashes are repeat offenders, so this is one way to tackle the problem that has proven effective in some states, says the report.

The Associated Press reports three recent high-profile crashes have involved drug use by drivers:

In July 2009, a New York mother sped the wrong way for more than a mile with a minivan full of children, leading to a crash that killed her and seven others. The woman had a blood-alcohol level 2½ times the legal limit and had smoked marijuana within an hour of the crash.

In Phoenix, the driver of a dump truck struck a group of motorcycle riders in March, killing four people and injuring five others. Initial tests found the driver had methamphetamine in his system.

Kerlikowske said efforts against drugged driving could be helped by improved testing procedures and standards for detecting drug use by drivers, along with more police officers trained to detect drug use by motorists.

"Every driver on the road has a personal responsibility to operate his or her vehicle with full and uncompromised attention on the driving task," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "While it’s clear that science and state policies regarding drugs and driving are evolving, one fact is indisputable. If you are taking any drugs that might impair your ability to drive safely, then you need to put common sense and caution to the forefront, and give your keys to someone else. It doesn’t matter if its drugs or alcohol, if you’re impaired, don’t drive."

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Corrected December 1, 2010 at 11:07AM: yes