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Forensic Toxicology: The Accuracy of Drug and Driving Impairment Measures

forensic toxicology

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Within the field of forensic toxicology, studies can be done on the effect of drug consumption on driving abilities, in order to measure impairment levels. The extent of scientific study on the relationship between drugs and driving impairment is increasing and vast, however, much more research needs to be done! Of course, it is not ethically sound nor at all safe to conduct experiments that recreate real-life scenarios of illegal drug-taking and then driving. This means that forensic toxicologists need to utilize other measures and approaches to test for the effects of drugs on drivers. Find out more about these approaches that forensic toxicologists use to measure driving impairment.

6 Ways in which Driving Impairment Can Be Measured in Forensic Toxicology

These 6 forms of case study on drugs and driving impairment all have their pros and cons. None of them provide a complete solution or perfect method of measurement. However, it is important for forensic toxicologists to note where each approach succeeds and falls short, and to use these approaches collectively.

In order to gain a clear understanding of the situation. Collectively, this scientific literature illustrates whether or not drugs are safe to consume while driving, and how they might weaken an individual’s driving abilities.

  1. Empirical Considerations

    This is the study into the specifics of the drug – What is its effect? Is it man-made or natural? How long does it last?

    • Advantages
      • Extensive information and research on the pharmacology of drugs
      • Easily supportable
      • Deductions can be made for other similar drugs
    • Disadvantages
      • Does not account for an unusual reaction
      • Does not account for the interaction or effect of multiple kinds of drugs
      • Not specific to driving, the individual nor the situation
  2. Epidemiological Studies

    Studies done retrospectively that look into drug-taking and driving in the context of a given group of drivers.

    • Advantages
      • Easy to conduct
      • Shows differences between various populations which can reveal trends
      • Large data pool
    • Disadvantages
      • More descriptive than specific
      • Difficult to make deductions
      • May be time and location specific
  3. Case Studies

    Actual, real-life reports of drivers under the influence of drugs

    • Advantages
      • Shows actual drug doses and resulting effects
      • First-hand accounts and therefore personalized information
      • Relevant populations
    • Disadvantages
      • Not necessarily reliable accounts
      • Lack of controlled data
  4. Laboratory Studies

    Legal and safe administration of drugs to evaluate various psychophysical factors such as response time, memory, vision.

    • Advantages
      • Controlled environment and thus relatively safe
      • Allows for a specific task or test to be isolated
    • Disadvantages
      • Real-life dosage cannot be administered
      • Driving cannot be simulated (unsafe)
      • Continual testing may develop learning effects in individual
  5. Simulator Studies

    The use of a driving simulator in conjunction with drug administration in order to evaluate performance (lane position, speed, steering, etc).

    • Advantages
      • Controlled environment and thus relatively safe
      • Close approximation of actual driving
    • Disadvantages
      • Real-life dosage cannot be administered
      • No actual consequences or threat of danger (not actual driving)
      • Small sample pool
  6. Actual Driving Studies

    Actual driving after drug-consumption in a real-life context (such as a highway or city streets)

    • Advantages
      • Actual driving situation
      • Real potential for danger and consequence
    • Disadvantages
      • Real-life dosage cannot be used
      • Legal responsibility issues
      • Potentially unethical
      • Small sample pool
      • Not frequently tested

Why Various Approaches Must Be Considered in the Field of Forensic Toxicology

Undoubtedly, drug-consumption has an effect of some sort on driving abilities. It may be that this effect enhances or impairs human performance in driving, for example psychomotor skills, depending on the amount consumed and frequency of consumption. Depending on which approach is taken to examine driving impairment, the results will differ and may not be conclusive. Thus, it is vital that forensic toxicologists examine multiple approaches conjunctively. Consider a laboratory and an epidemiological study, for example. It has been shown in some laboratory studies that small doses of amphetamine and methamphetamine may improve alertness and psychomotor performance in an individual under certain circumstances. Contrastingly however, epidemiological studies (in conjunction with empirical considerations) in which far higher, real-world doses are consumed show that these drugs impair driving abilities.

For more information on forensic toxicology and its examination on the relationship between drug-consumption and driving abilities, look forward to our next article on ‘Drug Detection and Implications for Driver Impairment’. To speak to an expert forensic toxicologist, phone Okorie Okorocha on (310) 497-0321 today.

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