Over Half of Tested Drivers in Fatal Crashes Had Drugs in Their System

A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports some alarming news. In 2016, a staggering 44 percent of all drivers who were killed tested positive for drugs in their autopsies — up from 28 percent in a similar study in 2006.

The GHSA report found that among those drivers who were fatally-injured, 38 percent tested positive for marijuana or some form of cannabis-related substance, 16 percent tested positive for opioids, and four percent tested positive for both substances. The report, Drug-Impaired Driving: Marijuana and Opioids Raise Critical Issues for States, was funded by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.

Conversely, that same report found that even though the number of alcohol-impaired drivers is also significant among those killed in vehicle accidents, the alcohol-related deaths took a slight drop: 38 percent in 2016 from 41 percent in 2006.

Alcohol-impaired and drug-impaired driving are no longer mutually exclusive issues, according to Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of Responsibility.org. “We have to think about the combination of substances drivers are often putting into their systems at the same time,” he said when the group released results of the study.

With 21 state legislatures seeing the introduction of bills for legalization of marijuana in some form, the GHSA/Responsibility.org report urges states to move faster toward developing reliable roadside testing devices and better law enforcement training to detect drivers under the influence of drugs. To date, no reliable testing exists, which accounts for the limited ability of law enforcement to detect drugged drivers.

For example, current testing to detect THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) cannot yet reveal WHEN a person is “illegally impaired.”  This is because traces of the drug remain in one’s body long after use and, as with alcohol, there is no way to gauge individual tolerance levels, which can vary from person-to-person. But the report suggests a reasonable certainty that marijuana causes crashes and legally impairs drivers.

“Too many people operate under the false belief that marijuana or opioids don’t impair their ability to drive…” according to GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Busting this myth requires states to expand their impaired driving campaigns to include marijuana and opioids along with alcohol to show drivers that impairment is impairment, regardless of substance.”

The report’s data is from two sources: NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) roadside surveys in the U.S. and Canada. The authors say their report comes with the caveat that drug presence does not necessarily mean drivers are impaired, as some drugs do not not impair driving, and the effect of marijuana or drugs on crash risk remains less than clear.

Estimating the crash risk is even more difficult for opioids than for marijuana, according to the authors. But they do assert that the “most supportable conclusion” is that opioids can increase crash risk by a factor of about two (or twice the normal risk). They also believe that opioids are present about half as frequently as marijuana in fatally-injured drivers, and that opioid use among drivers has “noticeably” increased since 2006.

If you believe you may have been injured by an “impaired” driver, contact Kaplan Lawyers PC to schedule a free consultation.