Over roughly the past twenty years, the percentage of drivers fatally injured in car crashes who were also under the influence of prescription opioids increased sevenfold: the increase climbed from 1 percent in 1995 to over 7 percent in 2015. This alarming information appeared in a recently published study that analyzed Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data from six states for the time period 1995 through 2015. The study, conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, appeared in the September, 2017, issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). The test results are based on samples taken within one hour of a crash from fatally injured drivers in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia, all of which routinely test for drugs after a fatal accident.
Prescription Opioid Abuse: A Scourge
Opioids are strong, and strongly addictive, pain relievers available by prescription. They include drugs you might have heard of, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, and codeine. Heroin, an illegal substance, is also an opioid.
While some people do need strong pain relief, such as those recovering from major surgery and suffering from late-stage cancers, there’s no denying that prescription opioid abuse has become an epidemic in the United States. Drug overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental death in our country; in 2015, 52,404 died from overdoses. Almost 40 percent of overdoses—20,101 deaths—occurred because of prescription pain relievers.
There’s no question that an increase in drug overdoses means both an increase in drug usage and an increase in car crashes caused by drugs. Dr. Guohua Li, co-author of the Columbia University study, commented in a statement, “Prescription opioids as potent pain medications can cause drowsiness and impair cognitive functions. The 700 percent rise in the prevalence of prescription opioids detected in fatally injured drivers is cause for great concern.”
Results of the Columbia University Study
The nearly 37,000 drivers who died in fatal accidents and were tested for drugs produced the following results:
- Twenty-four percent of the deceased drivers had drugs in their bodies; 3 percent had prescription narcotics in their systems.
- Among that 3 percent, 30 percent also had high alcohol levels. Traces of other drugs were found in 67 percent.
- Prescription rates of opioids have quadrupled from 1991 to 2014, when the annual number of prescriptions was nearly 300 million.
An Older Study with Local Results
An earlier study, in which researchers looked at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data taken from the time period 1995 through 2013, analyzed toxicological test samples taken from drivers in fatal auto accidents across all 50 states. The results, posted state-by-state, revealed that:
- Of the top ten states where drivers tested positive for drugs, South Carolina came in ninth, narrowly edging out Alabama. Number one was North Dakota; rounding out the top five were Wyoming, Montana, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
- Spartanburg County turned out to be the number one county in the nation where drivers in fatal accidents tested positive for depressants. (Depressants are prescription medications like benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Klonopin, and also barbiturates, such as Nembutal and Seconal.)
- Aiken County was found to be the number four county in the nation where drivers in fatal accidents tested positive for cannabinoids (marijuana).
South Carolina, like a number of other places in the U.S., appears to have a problem.
Regardless of the substance impairing a driver, anyone driving under the influence is a danger to all of us on the road. The lead researcher of the Columbia study, Dr. Stanford Chihuri, believes the problem is a critical one to solve: “The significant increase in proportion of drivers who test positive for prescription pain medications is an urgent public health concern.”