Study: Opioids, Marijuana Found in Drugged-Driving Accidents

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Most people are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving or at least have been warned about them. But many probably aren’t thinking much about crossing paths with drug-impaired drivers. A recent Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report suggests that needs to change and soon.

The report titled, “Drug-Impaired Driving: Marijuana and Opioids Raise Critical Issues for States,” raises grave concerns when it comes to motorists who use drugs–sometimes more than one at the same time–and then get behind the wheel.

According to the data presented, 44 percent of fatally injured drivers with known results tested positive for drugs in 2016, an increase of 28 percent from just 10 years before. More than half of these motorists tested positive for marijuana, opioids, or a combination of both in their systems, the report said.

A news release offers a further breakdown of the data, saying: “Among drug-positive fatally-injured drivers in 2016, 38 percent tested positive for some form of marijuana, 16 percent tested positive for opioids, and four percent tested positive for both marijuana and opioids.”

It is not clear from the data presented if the evidence of drug use contributed to the cause of the crashes studied. Still, it raises concerns for two important reasons.

First, the U.S. is grappling with a public health emergency in which opioid-related overdoses have hit record numbers never seen before. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that opioid overdoses kill 115 people a day. The opioids involved include prescription pain medications, heroin, and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, the agency says.

Second, as the GHSA notes, “marijuana use is rapidly becoming normalized” as more states are considering legalizing the substance for medical and recreational purposes. Recreational marijuana is already legal in nine states and in the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana has been approved in 30 states and in the District of Columbia.

It also is interesting to note that while drugged driving appears to be increasing, data show that the presence of alcohol in fatally-injured drivers dipped slightly lower in the 10-year period of 2006 and 2016. It fell from 41 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2016.

Why Is It Hard to Detect Drugged Drivers?

While it is known that marijuana and opioids can impair driving and cause road accidents, what’s not as clear is how to best understand and address the unique challenges that drug-impaired driving raises. The following complicates the picture as experts try to understand the scope of the “drugged driving” problem:

  • A lack of a nationally accepted method to test drivers for drug impairment
  • The high multitude of drugs to test drivers for; and
  • The fact that different drugs affect drivers differently; not everyone responds to drugs the same

 

The report also notes that the presence of drugs in one’s system does not imply someone is impaired. Also, “no data sources accurately document how frequently drivers have a measurable amount of drug in their systems, much less how frequently they are impaired by drugs,” it says.

The report’s author, Dr. Jim Hedlund, who is also a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, explained the findings in a statement, saying:

“Drugs can impair, and drug-impaired drivers can crash. But it’s impossible to understand the full scope of the drugged driving problem because many drivers who are arrested or involved in crashes, even those who are killed, are not tested for drugs. Drivers who are drug-positive may not necessarily be impaired.”

Multiple Drug Use Also a Concern

Research also highlights another trend officials have noticed. Polydrug use, the practice of using two or more potentially-impairing substances at the same time, appears to be happening more frequently.

According to the report, “In 2016, 51 percent of drug-positive fatally injured drivers were found positive for two or more drugs. Alcohol is often in the mix as well: 49 percent of drivers killed in crashes who tested positive for alcohol in 2016 also tested positive for drugs.”

Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among polydrug users. Many people use the two together to increase their state of intoxication or enhance the highs of one drug with the other. The substance only adds to the danger as it is a depressant.

Pairing the psychoactive drug marijuana with alcohol, two depressants, can bring on various effects—from impaired judgment, nausea and vomiting, to having reactions of panic, anxiety or paranoia. Concurrent alcohol and opioid use can lead to extreme drowsiness, blackouts, and a loss of consciousness. Respiratory failure also can increase the likelihood of overdose.

Views of Drug Use’s Effects on Driving Vary

Drivers’ perceptions about substance use plays a significant role in how they view drugged driving.

The report highlights differing views on marijuana’s effects on driving. It reports that while one 2017 national survey found that nearly 90 percent of drivers said they feel it is unacceptable to drive after using marijuana, survey respondents and focus groups in Colorado and Washington state reported they don’t believe marijuana use impairs driving at all; some believe using the substance improves their driving.

“Too many people operate under the false belief that marijuana or opioids don’t impair their ability to drive, or even that these drugs make them safer drivers,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins in the statement. “Busting this myth requires states to expand their impaired driving campaigns to include marijuana and opioids along with alcohol to show drivers that impairment is impairment, regardless of substance.”

 

The report offers a number of recommendations to states, including:

  • Adding drug-impaired driving messages, particularly those about marijuana- and prescription drug-impaired driving, to their impaired driving campaigns
  • Considering a campaign with physicians and pharmacists on prescription drug warnings
  • Testing all fatally injured drivers, and all surviving drivers in a fatal crash who may be at fault, for drugs and alcohol

Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of Responsibility.org., which funded the study, said in the report’s statement that alcohol-impaired driving and drug-impaired driving can no longer be treated as separate issues.

“Drunk driving, which was involved in 28 percent of 2016 traffic fatalities, remains a critical issue; however, to curb impaired driving, we have to think about the combination of substances drivers are often putting into their systems at the same time,” Blackman said.

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