Car Crashes and Drugged Driving
Drugged Driving Injuries Increasing
The number of drugged drivers killed in car crashes is rising dramatically. The Governors Highway Safety Association found Forty-four percent of fatally injured drivers tested for drugs had positive results in 2016. That number is up more than 50 percent compared with a decade ago. The majority of those drivers tested positive for marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two.
“These are big-deal drugs. They are used a lot,” said Jim Hedlund, an Ithaca, New York-based traffic safety consultant who conducted the highway safety group’s study. “People should not be driving while they’re impaired by anything and these two drugs can impair you.”
Nine states and Washington, D.C., allow marijuana to be sold for recreational and medical use, and 21 others allow it to be sold for medical use, including Rhode Island. Opioid addiction and overdoses have become a national crisis, with an estimated 115 deaths a day.
According to traffic safety experts, while it’s easy for police to test drivers for alcohol impairment using a breathalyzer, it’s much harder to detect and screen them for drug impairment.
There is no nationally accepted method for testing drivers, and the number of drugs to test for is large. Different drugs also have different effects on drivers. And there is no definitive data linking drugged driving to crashes.
Another problem is that drivers often are using more than one drug at once. The new study found that about half of drivers who died and tested positive for drugs in 2016 were found to have two or more drugs in their system.
How Are Drivers Tested For Drugged Driving?
More than 37,000 people died in vehicle crashes in 2016, up 5.6 percent from the previous year, according to the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration.
Using fatality data from the federal agency, the governors’ highway safety group found that 54 percent of fatally injured drivers that year were tested for drugs and alcohol. Of those who had drugs in their system, 38 percent tested positive for marijuana, 16 percent for opioids and 4 percent for both. The remaining 42 percent tested positive for a variety of legal and illegal drugs, such as cocaine and Xanax.
That means more than 5,300 drivers who died in fatal crashes in 2016 tested positive for drugs. Those numbers don’t include all drivers killed in crashes or those who drove impaired but didn’t have a crash.
“A lot of the tools we developed for alcohol don’t work for drugs,” said Russ Martin, government relations director for the highway safety group. “We don’t have as clear a method for every officer to conduct roadside tests.”
Police who stop drivers they think are impaired typically use standard sobriety tests, such as asking the person to walk heel to toe and stand on one leg. That works well for alcohol testing, as does breathing into a breathalyzer, which measures the blood alcohol level.
But these standard sobriety tests don’t work for drugs, which can only be detected by testing blood, urine or saliva. Even then, finding the presence of a drug doesn’t necessarily mean the person is impaired.
With marijuana, for example, metabolites can stay in the body for weeks, long after impairment has ended, making it difficult to determine when the person used the drug.