Impairment due to alcohol, tetrahydrocannabinol, and benzodiazepines in impaired drivers compared to experimental studies

Traffic Inj Prev. 2017 Apr 3;18(3):244-250. doi: 10.1080/15389588.2016.1201205. Epub 2016 Jun 21.


Objective: In some countries, per se laws for other drugs than alcohol are used to judge drunk and drugged drivers. These blood concentration limits are often derived from experimental studies on traffic relevant behavior of healthy volunteers. Knowledge about how results from experimental studies could be transferred to a real-life setting is missing. The aim of this study was to compare impairment seen in experimental studies to the impairment seen at equivalent concentrations in apprehended drunk and drugged drivers.

Methods: Results from previously performed meta-analyses of experimental studies regarding impairment from alcohol, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and benzodiazepines were compared to impairment in apprehended drunk and drugged drivers as judged by a clinical test of impairment. Both experimental studies and real-life cases were divided into 4 groups according to increasing blood drug concentration intervals. The percentage of impaired test results in experimental studies was compared to the percentage of impaired subjects among drivers within the same blood drug concentration window.

Results: For ethanol, the percentage of impaired drivers (n = 1,223) increased from 59% in the lowest drug concentration group to 95% in the highest drug concentration group, compared to 7 and 72% in the respective groups in experimental studies. For THC, the percentage of impaired drivers (n = 950) increased from 42 to 58%, the corresponding numbers being 11 and 42% for experimental studies. For benzodiazepines, the percentage of impaired drivers (n = 245) increased from 46 to 76%, the corresponding numbers being 16 and 60% for experimental studies. The increased odds ratio for impairment between 2 concentration groups was comparable for experimental studies and impaired drivers.

Conclusions: Fewer test results indicated impairment in experimental studies compared to impaired drivers in real life when influenced by similar blood concentrations of either ethanol, THC, or benzodiazepines. In addition, a comparable relationship between drug concentration and impairment was seen for both experimental studies and real-life cases. We believe that the present study strengthens the background for using experimental studies to establish fixed concentration limits for drunk and drugged drivers, but experimental studies in an impaired driver population could further expand our knowledge.

Keywords: Impairment; drivers; drugs; experimental studies.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / blood*
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / epidemiology
  • Automobile Driving / statistics & numerical data*
  • Benzodiazepines / adverse effects*
  • Benzodiazepines / blood*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Dronabinol / blood
  • Ethanol / blood
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Young Adult


  • Benzodiazepines
  • Ethanol
  • Dronabinol