Safety groups are warning Canadians of the risks of driving under the influence of drugs during their annual campaign.

The Canada Safety Council (CSC) is using its National Safe Driving Week to raise awareness of the dangers of driving while impaired by illegal drugs, prescription medication and over-the-counter products.

“A lot of people seem to believe impaired driving is an alcohol thing, nowadays we find drugged driving is just as common, just as frequent as impaired driving by alcohol,” said Raynald Marchand, general manager of the CSC.

A CSC news release said 35.3 per cent of drivers killed in 2009 were impaired by drugs, compared to 40.9 per cent impaired by alcohol.

They also said the amount of young drivers age 16 to 24 who die in crashes while impaired by drugs is nearly identical to the amount who were impaired by alcohol, 26.9 per cent compared to 27.6 per cent.

More drivers above the age of 55 are killed while impaired by drugs than alcohol, the CSC said.

Police better equipped to identify drug impairment

Marchand said police forces have special drug recognition experts who can sort out whether someone is impaired by alcohol and drugs and proceed properly, requesting a saliva, urine or blood sample when they have reason to believe they’ve taken drugs.

Sgt. John Kiss of the Ottawa police said the signs of impairment can be quite similar between drugs and alcohol.

John Kiss Ottawa Police

Sgt. John Kiss of the Ottawa police said the signs of drug impairment can be very similar to being drunk. (CBC)

”We can determine very easily the level of impairment by alcohol because we can measure the level of the blood alcohol concentration,” he said.

“It’s not that simple with drugs to determine if the drug level they have in their bloodstream would make them impaired to the point it’s a factor in a fatal collision.”

He also said he personally doesn’t feel the issue is worse in recent times.

”My personal opinion is the problem has always been there, it’s just that we lacked the training and the tools to deal with it,” he said.

National Safe Driving week runs Dec. 1-7

The Canada Safety Council said when it started its national safe driving campaign in 1956, the first week of December was the worst for impaired driving.

Marchand said thanks to their work and efforts of anti-impaired driving programs such as Operation Red Nose, that isn’t the case anymore.

Still, he said the need for education remains when there are false perceptions about driving while under the influence of drugs.

“It has become more important to look at the population and tell them it’s not alright to do this. No, you’re not driving any better on drugs than you were on alcohol, it’s just as dangerous,” he said.

“Hopefully you’ll get caught before you kill somebody.”