Driving While On Prescription Opioids Can Be Deadly

By Beth Leipholtz 02/19/19

Researchers have uncovered an alarming trend among drivers under the influence of prescription opioids.


As the opioid epidemic continues to grow, the medications are being blamed for more fatalities on the road. 

In the past 25 years, according to U.S. News & World Report, the number of fatal car crashes with drivers high on opioids has tripled. 

These results come from a study which examined more than 18,000 fatal car crashes involving two vehicles in the U.S. from 1993 to 2016. Of those, more than half (55%) of driving errors made by drivers who later tested positive for prescription opioids had to do with the driver not staying in their own lane.  

According to study co-author Dr. Guohua Li, who is also the director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center, the failure to stay in one’s lane was "a particularly dangerous driving error." 

In fact, researchers found that this error was a factor in more than 40% of fatal crashes involving two vehicles, “making it the most common cause of deadly auto accidents.”

According to Li, the outcome of the study “adds important information for understanding the ripple effects of the opioid epidemic, particularly its adverse effect on driving safety."

Li adds that prescription opioids "are potent pain medications that can cause drowsiness, nausea, and impaired cognitive functions and psychomotor skills, including reduced reaction time, alertness, attention and concentration."

When it comes to how opioids impact drivers in comparison to alcohol, Li says that the effect of driving on opioids is about equal to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. This falls just under 0.08%, which is what most states consider driving under the influence, according to U.S. News and World Report

According to Li, testing a driver for opioids is more expensive and more difficult than testing for alcohol. "It is also more difficult to detect drug-impaired driving than alcohol-impaired driving through field sobriety tests," he said. 

"But law enforcement is making effort to tackle the drugged driving problem," he added. "For example, many states are expanding their drug recognition expert programs, which would train more police to become certified field evaluators of driving under the influence of drugs."

JT Griffin, chief government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tells U.S. News that the results of the study are not surprising. "With the rising use of opioids, it is not surprising that there is an increase in the number of drivers with opioids in their systems," he said.

"Any drug that causes drowsiness, slows reaction times, or affects judgment and mobility in any way is a threat to public safety," Griffin added. "It's important that people do not drive anytime they are drinking or using any kind of impairing substance."

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.