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A study from the National Safety Council indicates that more Americans die from opioids than car accidents. However, recent research indicates opioid usage may influence car fatality rates, particularly as drunk driving accidents have been on a gradual decline over the past 20 years.

Crashes Involving Two-Cars

distraught woman on her phone after an accidentAccording to a study published in JAMA, more drivers responsible for fatal two-car crashes were using opioids than not. Yet, regardless of whether the driver had opioids in his or her system, more fatalities occurred from veering out of the lane. Of the 18,321 fatal crashes recorded by NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 7,535 involved a driver who drifted or moved out of his or her lane.

More often than not, drivers from this group who were at fault had prescription opioids or alcohol in their system. Although figures show that more drivers choose to drive drunk than under the influence of painkillers, the percentage of drivers who have taken a prescription opioid has jumped since the early 1990s. In 1993, two percent of all individuals responsible for a fatal crash had a prescription opioid in their system, compared to 7.1 percent in 2016. During this same period, alcohol involvement decreased from 34 to 28 percent.

Additionally, opioid usage was not uniform. After toxicology tests were performed, 32 percent had used hydrocodone, 27 percent used morphine, 19 percent used oxycodone and 14 percent used methadone. Among those who used both prescription opioids and alcohol, drivers responsible for a fatal wreck increased 21 percent.

Although data indicates opioids may play a role in fatal car accidents, researchers caution these figures are merely a correlation. Rather, multiple factors need to be taken into account: Specifically, individuals who don’t regularly use opioids experience a greater degree of psychomotor and cognitive impairments, compared to individuals who use them to manage chronic pain. In fact, individuals who regularly use opioids experience a degree of tolerance that doesn’t affect driving skills.

When Toxicology Tests Occur

A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, pointed out that toxicology reports may be skewed following a fatal accident. In general, those involved in an accident may be given opioids for treatment following the incident, only to die days later.

Data from fatal crashes in Maryland from 2006 through 2017 indicates that 10 percent of all fatal crashes involved opioid usage. Specifically looking at toxicology reports, opioid usage increased from 8.3 to 14.1 percent. Examining driver deaths at the scene, the amount of individuals with opioids in their system increased from seven to nine percent.

No Clear Cause-and-Effect Relationship

Opioids can affect each individual differently. Even when prescribed by a doctor, these drugs come with a warning that drowsiness, delayed reaction times and impaired judgement may occur. As such, individuals who have recently taken a prescription opioid are advised to refrain from driving or operating heavy machinery. Additionally, if an individual is prescribed a long-term treatment, he or she is advised to wait at least five days to see how they are affected.

Opioid usage falls within the vast spectrum of drugged driving, which has experienced an uptick in the past five years. Although statistically, all illegal and prescription drugs are being grouped together, more variation needs to be taken into account:

  • Not all drugs affect drivers differently. Opioids and marijuana slow down reaction time and distort how drivers perceive distance. On the other hand, cocaine and methamphetamines tend to make drivers behave more aggressively.
  • Statistics don’t account for mixing drugs. Because drug users may be taking more than one substance, or mixing them with alcohol, challenges exist when pinpointing the exact cause of impairment. Based on figures from the Governors Highway Safety Association, this scenario is fairly common: Of the 43.6 percent of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs, more than half had two or more drugs in their system.
  • Tests for drugged driving aren’t accurate. Specifically, certain substances remain in the urine for days, if not weeks, at a time. By that point, the traces likely won’t have an effect on the driver’s mental and physical state. In spite of this, that nearly indiscernible presence may be enough for a driver to be charged with DUI.