It’s Time to Accept the Link between the Opioid Epidemic and Fatal Car Wrecks

December 4th, 2017 by Guajardo & Marks, LLP

The connection between the U.S. opioid epidemic and the sharp rise in fatal car crashes is becoming undeniable. A recently released report by the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City says there’s a sevenfold increase in the number of drivers killed in car crashes while under the influence of prescription painkillers.

By 2014, the prescribed use of drugs like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicoprofen) and morphine rose nearly 400 percent, to around 300 million prescriptions, up from 1991’s 76 million. All of these opioids cause drowsiness, impair thinking, and slow reaction times. All significantly interfere with driving skills as seriously as alcohol. But unlike booze, law enforcement still has no reliable on-the-street testing device to detect narcotic impairment – yet.

Columbia University Medical researchers pored over 10 years of drug test results for over 36,000 drivers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System. They concentrated on California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Their report, “Trends in Prescription Opioids Detected in Fatally Injured Drivers in 6 US States: 1995–2015,” was published in August 2017’s American Journal of Public Health. It states that the prevalence of drivers with prescription opioids in their system at the time of death rose at an alarming rate, from 1.0 percent in 1995 to 7.2 percent in 2015.

The three most commonly detected opioids in the NHTSA study were oxycodone, morphine and codeine. About 70 percent of the drivers who tested positive for prescription opioids also had other drugs in their system, and around one-third also had “elevated” blood alcohol levels.

“People may think it’s not a big deal and it’s safe to go about routine activities like driving,” says Guohua Li, the study’s senior author and director of Columbia University’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention. “But we’ve found this is not the case, especially when prescription opiates are used in combination with alcohol or other drugs.” Li adds that he expects the increased proportion of fatal crashes involving prescription opioids to rise even further in 2017.

Of those 37,000 drivers in the study, only around three percent – about a thousand – tested positive for prescription narcotics. That might not seem like many; but it’s the recent spike that draws attention and concern from the researchers. For example, the number of men killed in crashes who were using opioids increased from less than one percent between 1995 and 1999 to around five percent between 2010 and 2015. And for women, the rate increased during those same two timeframes from one percent to an alarming seven percent.

“Significant proportional increases of drivers who test positive for prescription pain medications is an urgent public health concern,” says the lead researcher, Stanford Chihuri, who co-authored the report.

“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,” said Jim Hedlund, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, after viewing the report.

The Dallas car accident attorneys at Guajardo & Marks are here to help. If you or a loved one has been injured in a car wreck caused by a driver under the influence of opioids, please reach out to learn how we can help you get the justice and fair compensation you deserve. Time is short, though, and it’s important to act quickly. Contact us today by filling out our online contact form or calling us at 972-774-9800 to schedule a free consultation.