America’s highways stand as the latest danger zone of the opioid epidemic as a new study found drivers on prescription medications are increasingly responsible for crashes – and possibly deaths.
“Use of prescription opioids plays a significant role in the causation of fatal motor vehicle crashes,” said Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City in a recent study.
Li co-authored the study, “Use of Prescription Opioids and Initiation of Fatal 2-Vehicle Crashes.” The study was published Feb. 15, 2019 by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
The study findings
The study examined 36,642 drivers involved in 18,321 fatal, two-vehicle crashes. The crashes occurred on public roads between Jan. 1, 1993, – Dec. 31, 2016.
The prevalence of prescription opioids found in drivers who died within one hour of a crash increased to over 7 percent in 2015 from 1 percent in 1995.
The most commonly detected prescription opioids among fatally injured drivers in analyses of crashes caused by opioid use were hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.
The study determined that nearly 55 percent of drivers in crashes caused by opioid use who died tested positive for prescribed opioids and crashed because they were unable to keep their vehicle in the proper lane, according to a CNN story on the study.
The study about crashes caused by opioid use comes as health professionals said that opioids can cause a user to feel dizzy, drowsy and generally less alert, which can impact motor and cognitive skills, I.e. the reaction time necessary for safe driving.
Despite the findings, the study said that results so far make it unclear whether driver’s use of prescription opioids plays a role in causing fatal crashes. Few such studies have assessed the role of prescription opioids in initiating fatal motor vehicle crashes.
Opioids are medications that relieve pain by reducing the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain. Opioids have similar properties to the opium from which they are derived. Drugs in this class include Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.
Heroin is an opioid synthesized from morphine, a substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant.
Addiction to opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, and the subsequent need to keep taking the drug after the prescription expires leads many people to take heroin as a substitute.
The impact opioids have on drivers
In October 2017, the federal government declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency because of the increase in users’ deaths. In 2016, 11.5 million people 12 or older reported that they had misused prescription opioids in the previous year, according to the JAMA study.
The opioid prescription rate per 100 persons in America declined to nearly 67 percent in 2016 from over 72 percent in 2006, but a huge number of people continue to get opioid prescriptions – over 214 million.
In discussing crashes caused by opioid use, a key is that alcohol remains the most important substance in relation to impairing a driver and causing crashes, injuries and deaths, Li said.
Drunk driving is six times more common than driving while high on prescription opioids, such as OxyContin. The new study shows that in considering crashes caused by opioid use, such use nonetheless can double the risk of a deadly collision.
The rise of crashes caused by opioid use is making the jobs of law enforcement officers more difficult. Li said that in field sobriety tests used by police, it is harder to detect whether a driver is drug-impaired compared to if the driver is alcohol-impaired.
Many states are expanding training in the face of crashes caused by opioid use so police officers can become certified evaluators of whether a driver is under the influence of drugs, Li said. Physicians also bear a responsibility in considering crashes caused by opioid use.
It is the role of prescribing doctors to consider “the adverse effect on driving safety of pain medications, particularly opioid analgesics,” Li said.
For help with crashes caused by opioid use, contact Vaughn & Vaughn Personal Injury Attorneys of Lafayette, Indiana today.