Drugged Driving Nearly Doubled in Last Decade

Painkillers rather than marijuana and cocaine causing more traffic accident deaths

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Widespread public education and law enforcement efforts warn of the dangers associated with driving under the influence of alcohol. But new research suggests there's another growing problem to be aware of while on the road.

A new study concluded that prescription painkillers were increasingly responsible for traffic fatalities in the 10-year period ending in 2010.

The analysis found that more effective anti-drug policies were potentially responsible for declining rates of illegal drugs like cocaine leading to deaths during car wrecks.

"Don’t operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of prescription or illegal drugs."

Motao Zhu, PhD, MS, assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology and faculty affiliate at the School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University, led this research.

Dr. Zhu and team set out to analyze trends in drug use, not including alcohol, as it relates to traffic deaths.

The researchers looked specifically at prescription and illegal drugs, including methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, barbiturates, benzodiazepines and cocaine.

These researchers pulled traffic death data from the nationwide Fatality Analysis Reporting System compiled from 1999 to 2010.

To study changes in the rate of drug use related to traffic accidents, Dr. Zhu’s group determined baseline rates for the 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 periods.

Fatal crashes involving drug use were considered those in which the driver tested positive for drug use.

Between the beginning and ending periods, the rate of drug use in fatal crashes increased 49 percent overall.

The largest increases came in the broad narcotics category, particularly the use of hydrocodone and oxycodone, both powerful painkillers with possible side effects like drowsiness and confusion.

The researchers saw the involvement of cocaine in fatal traffic accidents increase up until 2005, then progressively decline. The researchers attributed that shift to waning popularity of the drug, death of regular users, and more effective anti-drug policies.

In total, 95,654 drivers were included in the analysis.

"The principal finding of this study suggests that substance use is not only intensifying, but changing among those that drive under the influence in the US," Dr. Zhu and colleagues wrote.

“Considering these observed trends, there is evidence that a shift from illegal to prescription drugs may be occurring in those involved in fatal traffic crashes," they wrote.

These researchers also noted that as some states are relaxing laws regulating the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana and its derivatives, the presence of illegal drugs (non-prescription) is declining.

The researchers described driving under the influence as a growing public health concern.

These findings were published in the September edition of Accident Analysis and Prevention.

The research was funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, among other sources.

The authors did not disclose any relevant conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 28, 2014
Last Updated:
May 29, 2014