25% of Car Crash Victims Test Positive For Drugs

By Dirk Hanson 06/26/11

Over 25% of drivers who are fatally wounded in accidents test positive for drugs other than alcohol—primarily marijuana (22%), amphetamines (22%), and assorted opiates (9%).

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Alcohol still the leading culprit.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

We hear a lot about the gruesome dangers of drunk driving, and for good reason. A new study looked at the records of 44,000 single-car fatalities from 1998 to 2009 and discovered that 37% of deceased drivers had blood-alcohol levels over the legal limit of 0.08. But what really struck us was this: The same study also showed that 25% of the fatally injured drivers had tested positive for drugs other than alcohol during accident investigations—primarily marijuana (22%), amphetamines (also 22%), and opiates (9%). (Marijuana was linked primarily to speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt.) The study used data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to confirm what had only been opinion and anecdote in the past.

In 2007, another national survey of nighttime weekend driving showed that 16% of drivers in the study tested positive for illegal drugs. But authors Eduardo Romano and Robert Voas, writing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, say their work is among the first to pull out hard numbers on the overall prevalence of drug use in fatal crashes. They caution that their research does not prove that drug use was primarily responsible for the traffic deaths. As co-author Romano notes in Time: “Alcohol is still the largest contributor to fatal crashes.” In other words, said Romano, “when a driver is drunk, it doesn’t matter what drugs are in their system. The alcohol takes over.”

19 states are now wrestling with the issue of designing and enforcing “driving under the influence of drugs” legislation. And about as many have zero-tolerance laws in place for a bewildering variety of drugs. One big problem, as we reported in a recent case involving Colorado, was that attempting to craft a law for driving under the influence of marijuana—determining a legal limit, and devising a reliable, roadworthy means of testing for it—is not easy. There are no agreed-upon levels for marijuana or cocaine impairment, for example, and some drugs linger in the body longer that others, further confusing the issue. And given that the same data set was used recently to conclude that even 0.01% may be an unsafe driving level for alcohol, as we noted in our recent story about buzzed driving, the basic idea of driving clean and sober continues to look like the smartest play.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]