The Rise Of Driving Under The Influence Of Opioids

By Kelly Burch 08/03/17

A new study examined the role prescription painkillers are playing in fatal car accidents. 

man taking pills while behind the wheel of his car

Fatal car crashes where the driver was under the influence of prescription opioids have increased 7 times between 1995 and 2015. 

According to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, prescription opioids were present in 7.2% of drivers killed in car accidents during 2015, compared to just 1% in 1995. 

"The significant increase in proportion of drivers who test positive for prescription pain medications is an urgent public health concern," said lead researcher Stanford Chihuri, according to CBS News. Even properly used opioids can cause drowsiness and slow reaction time, both of which can increase the danger of driving a car. 

Chihuri said that there needs to be more research into the dangers of operating a car while taking prescription opioids. 

“Prescription pain medications use and abuse may play a role in motor vehicle crashes," he said. "Additional research is urgently needed to assess its role.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said that addressing impaired driving is a key public health issue. 

"MADD is concerned about the rising use of opioids across the nation and the effect these drugs have on the safety of our roadways," said J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at the nonprofit organization.

"MADD has always served victims of all substance-impaired driving and remains committed to eliminating drunk driving and fighting drugged driving.”

The study looked at data from California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia, states that routinely test for drugs in people who have died in car accidents. Researchers found that a nearly quarter of the 37,000 drivers in the analysis had drugs in their system, of which 3% were prescription narcotics. Thirty percent of impaired users also had high levels of alcohol and 67% had traces of other drugs in their system. 

Dr. Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and study author, said that the finding shows the widespread implications of the opioid epidemic. 

"The opioid epidemic has been defined primarily by the counts of overdose fatalities," Li said in a statement. "Our study suggests that increases in opioid consumption may carry adverse health consequences far beyond overdose morbidity and mortality.”

Despite the finding that more prescription opioids were present in fatal crashes, Jim Hedlund, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said that researchers cannot presume to know the affect those drugs had on the drivers. 

“The presence of a drug doesn't imply impairment,” he said. However, he added that it is important for prescription opioid users to discuss safe operating with their doctors. 

"It's up to doctors and pharmacists to tell their patients that these drugs can impair driving and not to take them when they drive," he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.