The indicators of just how dangerous the U.S. opioid epidemic has grown are becoming clearer each day. A recently released report by the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City say there’s a sevenfold increase in the number of drivers killed in car crashes while under the influence of prescription painkillers.
Not including the illegal opioid trade, the use of drugs like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicoprofen) and morphine have quadrupled to nearly 300 million prescriptions in 2014. from 76 million in 1991. All of these drugs typically cause drowsiness, impaired thinking and slowed reaction times, which – just like alcohol – interfere with driving skills. But unlike alcohol, there’s still no definitive field test for narcotic intoxication.
Researchers examined drug test results for over 36,000 drivers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System. They focused on California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia. In a paper entitled, Trends in Prescription Opioids Detected in Fatally Injured Drivers in 6 US States: 1995–2015 published in the July edition of The American Journal of Public Health, researchers said that the prevalence of drivers with prescription opioids in their system at the time of death surged from 1.0 percent in 1995 to 7.2 percent in 2015.
The three most commonly detected opioids were oxycodone, morphine and codeine. Nearly 70 percent of the drivers who tested positive for prescription opioids also tested positive for other drugs; and almost one-third had “elevated” blood alcohol concentrations.
“People may think it’s not a big deal and it’s safe to go about routine activities like driving, but we’ve found this is not the case, especially when prescription opiates are used in combination with alcohol or other drugs,” says Guohua Li, the study’s senior author and director of Columbia University’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention. Li adds that he expects the increased proportion of fatal crashes involving prescription opioids to apply to 2017 as well.
Of the 37,000 cases in the study, around three percent tested positive for prescription narcotics. A thousand people in an almost 20-year span might not seem like a lot, but it’s the recent spike that has drawn acute attention and concern from the researchers. For example, the number of men killed in crashes who were using opioids increased from slightly less than one percent between 1995 and 1999 to around five percent from 2010 to 2015. But for women, the rate increase during those same two timeframes jumped from one percent to an alarming seven percent.
“Significant (and recent) 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 to not to take them when they drive,” said Jim Hedlund, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, after viewing the report.
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