Drugged Driving Is Now a Leading Cause of Fatal Car Crashes in the US
According to a recent report compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, prescription and/or illegal drugs were involved in 43% of fatal car crashes in Y 2015, while 37 involved illegal amounts of alcohol.
The findings highlight an urgent need for law enforcement training in identifying drug-impaired driving.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune: “The drugged driving report, which summarizes findings from multiple studies, said law enforcement officers often have a hard time recognizing drivers under the influence of drugs, who are more difficult to assess than those driving drunk.
‘Officers need to know more than they do for alcohol how to suspect drug impairment, and know that it can exhibit itself in different ways,’ [lead author and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official Jim] Hedlund said in an interview. ‘Drug impairment has different signs and symptoms — think of the difference between uppers and downers.’”
Many drivers make the mistake of not taking their drug use into account before getting behind the wheel.
Illegal drugs are far from the only drugs capable of impairing one’s judgment. As noted in the report, hundreds of medications can impair your driving ability, including some sold OTC (over-the-counter).
Opioids are part of that list.
Drugs, both prescription and illegal, in combination with alcohol are very risky.
When it comes to measuring the amount of drugs in a person’s system, the fact that different drugs metabolize in very different ways and at different rates makes testing of blood, urine or saliva extremely challenging, not to mention the fact that no single test can measure all the possible drugs a driver might be on.
An alternative is to use other types of tests to evaluate whether a driver might be impaired by drugs.
The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility is giving grants this year to train police officers in 5 states on the identification of drug-impaired driving.
The US Drug Evaluation and Classification Program teaches law enforcement to use a 12-Step evaluation, it is a 90-min procedure that is not easily done roadside.
Adding to the dilemma is that while “driving while impaired” is illegal in all 50 US states, the specific definition of “drug impairment” varies. There’s also no uniformity in what drugs are actually screened for when impairment is suspected. Testing for all of the hundreds of drugs known to cause impairment is not feasible.
According to the report, marijuana accounted for 35% of fatally injured drivers found to have drugs in their system; amphetamines accounted for 9%, while more than half were caused by “other drugs.”
In terms of crash risk, studies have found the following associations, assuming a driver with no drugs or alcohol in their system has a relative crash risk assessment is 1 in 7.
Marijuana is associated with a slightly elevated risk, with a relative risk of 1 to 3.
Opioids, cocaine and benzodiazepines are associated with a medium increased risk, with a relative risk of 2 to 10
Amphetamines and/or multiple drug combinations are associated with a highly-elevated risk, with a relative risk of 5 to 30
Drugs in combination are associated with an extremely elevated risk, with a relative risk of 20 to 200
While the report honed in on marijuana, remember that the majority of the fatal crashes, over 50%, involved “other drugs,” and that opioids have a higher relative crash risk than marijuana.
While 1 in 8 American adults reports smoking marijuana, the opioid problem surely outweighs recreational marijuana use.
More than 259-M prescriptions for opioids are written in the US each year, an astounding 1 in 5 patients with a pain-related diagnosis is prescribed opioids, and in some states opioid prescriptions outnumber the residents.
More than 12-M Americans report using Rx painkillers for nonmedical purposes and 2-M Americans over the age of 12 are addicted specifically to opioid painkillers.
Further, 1 in 4 Americans and 1 in 3 millennials reports knowing someone addicted to opioids.
Honing in on how the legalization of marijuana may impact road safety without saying a single word about the impact of opioids is just reprehensible. We cannot continue sweeping the matter of opioid overuse and addiction under the rug and just point fingers at marijuana.
People should not drive if they have been smoking marijuana, but you also clearly should not drive if you’ve recently taken an opioid.
The recent arrest of Tiger Woods highlights this common-sense advice.
Take good care, Be safe, Think!