Marijuana, opioids rival alcohol as factors in traffic fatalities

Marijuana, opioids rival alcohol as factors in traffic fatalities

PanARMENIAN.Net - Marijuana, opioids and non-alcoholic drugs are more likely to be found in drivers killed in vehicular crashes than alcohol, Forbes reports citing a new study released Thursday, May 31 by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The study, titled “Drug-Impaired Driving: Marijuana and Opioids Raise Critical Issues for States,” does not dismiss the danger of drunk driving. But it does find that broader legalization of recreational marijuana use and the ongoing epidemic of opioid addiction have forced a more expansive view of impaired driving. That, in turn, raises the question of what, if any sanctions are appropriate for those who drive while drugged.

Here are the numbers: in 2016, 44% of fatally-injured drivers with known results tested positive for drugs, up from 28% in 2006. More than half of these drivers had marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two in their system.

Over that same period the presence of alcohol in fatally-injured drivers fell slightly from 41% in 2006 to 38% in 2016.

Jim Hedlund, a former official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and author of the study, said that some strategies deployed to discourage drunk driving can be effective to reduce the risk of drug-impaired driving, but non-alcoholic drugs present testing challenges.

For example, there is no national method for testing driver drug impairment. How do you distinguish the presence of marijuana from methamphetamines, cocaine or opioids? Different drugs have different impairing effects in different drivers.

Predictably, alcohol is often mixed with other drugs as a factor in fatal and non-fatal crashes.

In 2016, 51% of drug-positive fatally-injured drivers were found positive for two or more drugs. Alcohol is often in the mix as well: 49% of drivers killed in crashes who tested positive for alcohol in 2016 also tested positive for drugs.

Because law enforcement officials have more accurate ways to measure alcohol levels than levels of other drugs, the impact of marijuana and opioids may be understated.

“Among those arrested for DUI, if law enforcement finds their blood-alcohol concentration is above the legal limit, they really have no reason to test for any other drugs,” said Erin Holmes, director of traffic safety with, a non-profit funded by a group of distillers aiming to prevent drunk driving.

Without more robust testing processes "the presence of the drug itself can't prove impairment to the degree that the drug was the cause of the accident," Holmes said.

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