Prescription drugs play an increased role in traffic deaths

May 22, 2014 by Leigh Limerick

As states across the country explore the relaxation of marijuana laws, the changes have sparked widespread debate about the actions' impact on public safety. According to a West Virginia University School of Public Health study recently published by the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, automobile fatalities linked to drug use have risen sharply over the last decade. However, the role of illegal drugs in these crashes has declined.

"Prescription drug use by drivers in fatal traffic crashes has risen considerably," Toni Rudisill, doctoral student in epidemiology mentored by Motao Zhu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the WVU School of Public Health and WVU Injury Control Research Center (ICRC), said. "This means there has been a shift in patterns of drug involvement among drivers in recent years."

In their analysis of data spanning the years 1999 through 2010, Dr. Zhu's team noted a 49 percent jump in fatal traffic crashes where the driver was found to have tested positive for some sort of drug use. Though drug use among drivers has been recognized as a growing and traffic safety concern, Zhu said the specific drugs consumed by fatally injured drivers have not been considered as much as they should.

"Use of opioids, particularly oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, and depressants, such as benzodiazepines, has become a community health crisis," Rudisill said. "Now vehicular crashes involving prescription narcotics and depressants have radically increased as well."

The number of fatally injured drivers with hydrocodone or oxycodone in their blood streams was up more than six fold in 2009-2010, as compared to 1999-2000. Detected use of methadone among quadrupled over the same period.

Driver use of cannabinoids, the psychoactive compounds that produce marijuana's "high," has also increased but could not be classified as entirely illegal for the purposes of this study since a number of states are changing their .

"The problem is likely to worsen," Zhu explained. "Both the public and healthcare providers need to realize that driving under the influence of drugs – including very common prescription medications – may be extremely hazardous."

Zhu and his team of researchers analyzed data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System for the years 1999-2000 and 2009-2010.

Explore further: Marijuana use involved in more fatal accidents in Colorado

Related Stories

Marijuana use involved in more fatal accidents in Colorado

May 15, 2014

The proportion of marijuana-positive drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado has increased dramatically since the commercialization of medical marijuana in the middle of 2009, according to a study by University ...

Signs point to sharp rise in drugged driving fatalities

January 30, 2014

The prevalence of non-alcohol drugs detected in fatally injured drivers in the U.S. has been steadily rising and tripled from 1999 to 2010 for drivers who tested positive for marijuana—the most commonly detected non-alcohol ...

Fatalities down sharply as 16-year-olds drive less

February 24, 2014

Getting behind a steering wheel has been the most hotly anticipated rite of passage for most American teenagers (and a cause of insomnia among parents) practically since the invention of the automobile. For decades, 16-year-olds ...

Marijuana use may double the risk of accidents for drivers

October 6, 2011

Over 10 million people age 12 or older are estimated to have driven under the influence of illicit drugs in the prior year, according to a 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While marijuana is the most commonly ...

Drug use tied to fatal car crashes

June 23, 2011

It's well known that drunk driving can have fatal consequences, but a new study suggests that alcohol is not the only drug that’s a danger on the road.

Recommended for you

Exercise and vitamin D better together for heart health

April 27, 2017

Johns Hopkins researchers report that an analysis of survey responses and health records of more than 10,000 American adults for nearly 20 years suggests a "synergistic" link between exercise and good vitamin D levels in ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.