Safety First Means Sober Driving

Alcohol and substance use involved in fatally wounding US drivers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Sober drivers get in car crashes every day. Adding alcohol, drugs or prescription medications to the equation can really compound the risk for winding up in a wreck.

A recent study looked at the blood tests of fatally wounded drivers in the United States to check for the presence of drugs, pharmaceuticals and alcohol.

The results showed that nearly half of drivers who died in a car crash had been drinking and one in four had been using drugs or pharmaceuticals.

"Unless you’re sober, take a cab."

Eduardo Romano, PhD, from the Impaired Driving Center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, MD, led an investigation into alcohol and substance use in fatal car crashes.

These researchers reviewed data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a collection of all motor vehicle crashes on public roads in the US that resulted in death within 30 days of the crash.

Blood alcohol content levels were routinely gauged in drivers involved in fatal car crashes throughout the records. But only 20 states provided drug and pharmaceutical testing results for at least 80 percent of their fatally injured drivers.

Records for vehicle accidents in which the driver was killed were reviewed between the years of 1998 and 2010. Records of accidents in which a passenger died, but not the driver, were left out because most drivers that lived were not tested for the presence of drugs or pharmaceuticals.

Tests results were found for 47,831 drivers, 16,942 of which died at the scene of the crash and 30,899 died within 30 days of the crash. Blood tests screened for marijuana, depressants such as sedatives, narcotics such as painkillers and stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamines.

The researchers found the following among drivers who died at the scene:

  • 7 percent tested positive for marijuana
  • 2 percent for narcotics
  • 7 percent for stimulants
  • 4 percent for more than one substance
  • 74 percent did not test positive for any substance

Overall, 26 percent of fatally injured drivers tested positive for illegal drugs or prescription medications and 45 percent tested positive for alcohol.

These findings mean that around one in four of all drivers in the US that died upon impact in a car crash over the course of 12 years was driving under the influence of illegal drugs or pharmaceuticals.

By state, the highest numbers of fatal car crashes in which the driver died on the scene were recorded in California (10,231) and West Virginia (10,230).

More than 80 percent of the drivers that tested positive for alcohol were driving during the weekend between midnight and 4 am.

Drug and pharmaceutical related crashes were more evenly distributed throughout the day and week.

Fatally injured drivers that tested positive for alcohol were more likely to be male than female. The rates of drivers who tested positive for drugs and pharmaceuticals were relatively equal for men and women.

Men were more likely to test positive for marijuana and women were more likely to test positive for depressants, narcotics and other substances.

The authors concluded that fatal car crashes involving drugs and pharmaceuticals were less common than those involving alcohol. The characteristics of drug-related crashes were different depending upon the type of drug used and whether it was mixed with alcohol consumption as well.

The authors recommended that concerns about drug-impaired driving should not distract law enforcement from focusing on alcohol-impaired driving, as alcohol is still the larger problem.

This study was published in April in Addiction.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and the Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse provided funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 25, 2013
Last Updated:
August 14, 2013