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Drug use now rivals drunk driving as cause of fatal car crashes, study says

Drug use now rivals drunk driving as cause of fatal car crashes, study says


The Washington Post

By Ashley Halsey III

September 30, 2015

Police said Ronald Hayes Jr. was high on drugs and alcohol and desperate to escape officers in Prince George’s County, Md., when he ran a red light and smashed into the side of a minivan filled with women and children, killing two of them.


Kendall Owens admitted to police that he was high on PCP and marijuana when he caused a multi-car crash that killed one driver and injured six others on Long Island. And Adrianna M. Young tested positive for marijuana, police said, after her car careened off an Ohio road, crashing into a house and killing a woman sitting on her couch.


Drunk drivers have long been the scourge of the roadways, and they still are, but now drivers on drugs are becoming a menace that rivals them, according to a new federal report.


A quadrupling in the use of prescription drugs since 1999, and legalization of marijuana use in some states are cited among the reasons drug use has become an increasing threat to roadway safety, according to a report released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of state highway safety officers.


According to the study, drugs were found in the systems of almost 40 percent of fatally injured drivers who were tested for them. That rivals the number of drivers who died with alcohol in their system.


The number of dead drivers who tested positive for drugs has increased from 29 percent in 2005 to 39.9 percent in 2013, the report said, citing federal crash data.


The report draws on federal data again, in this case from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration roadside surveys, as evidence that illegal drug use and the use of prescription medications have increased in the past five years.


“We look to the federal government to take a leadership role in this issue similar to that of drunk driving and seat-belt use,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.


Marijuana is legal in some form in 23 states and the District of Columbia, while other states are considering legalization.


“Every state must take steps to reduce drug-impaired driving, regardless of the legal status of marijuana,” Adkins said. “We encourage NHTSA to issue guidance on best practices to prevent marijuana-impaired driving.”


The GHSA report cited three other studies that differed somewhat in linking marijuana law changes to traffic fatalities. One found that was there an increased marijuana presence in fatally injured drivers in only three of 14 states studied. Another focusing on Colorado said that marijuana-positive fatalities increased by about 4 percent. The third, in California, found no change after marijuana was decriminalized there in 2011.


Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in all states.


The governors group report concludes that, “Marijuana is by far the most common drug that is used, found in roadside surveys, and found in fatally-injured drivers. Marijuana use by drivers likely increases after a state permits recreational marijuana use.”


The report said the common practice of combining drugs and alcohol results in “dramatically impaired driving performance.”


In surveys and focus groups done in two states — Colorado and Washington — regular marijuana users said they felt their habit did not impair their ability to drive and, in some cases, improved it.


“They believed that they can compensate for any effects of marijuana, for instance by driving more slowly or by allowing greater headways,” the GHSA report said. “They believed it is safer to drive after using marijuana than after drinking alcohol.”


The GHSA report said police officers should be better trained to identify drivers who are high on drugs. Roadside enforcement also would be helped, the report said, by widespread use of saliva devices that test for drug use.


The report said the devices identify most commonly used drugs, are available for about $20 per use, “are not intrusive” and produce results in less than five minutes.