Pubdate: Thu, 31 May 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Jenni Bergal


As legal marijuana spreads and the opioid epidemic rages on, the
number of drugged drivers killed in car crashes is rising
dramatically, according to a report released today.

Forty-four percent of fatally injured drivers tested for drugs had
positive results in 2016, the Governors Highway Safety Association
found, up more than 50 percent compared with a decade ago. More than
half the drivers tested positive for marijuana, opioids or a
combination of the two.

"These are big-deal drugs. They are used a lot," said Jim Hedlund, an
Ithaca, New York-based traffic safety consultant who conducted the
highway safety group's study. "People should not be driving while
they're impaired by anything and these two drugs can impair you."

Nine states and Washington, D.C., allow marijuana to be sold for
recreational and medical use, and 21 others allow it to be sold for
medical use. Opioid addiction and overdoses have become a national
crisis, with an estimated 115 deaths a day.

States are struggling to get a handle on drugged driving. Traffic
safety experts say that while it's easy for police to test drivers for
alcohol impairment using a breathalyzer, it's much harder to detect
and screen them for drug impairment.

There is no nationally accepted method for testing drivers, and the
number of drugs to test for is large. Different drugs also have
different effects on drivers. And there is no definitive data linking
drugged driving to crashes.

"With alcohol, we have 30 years of research looking at the
relationship between how much alcohol is in a person's blood and the
odds they will cause a traffic crash," said Jake Nelson, AAA's traffic
safety director. "For drugs, that relationship is not known."

Another problem is that drivers often are using more than one drug at
once. The new study found that about half of drivers who died and
tested positive for drugs in 2016 were found to have two or more drugs
in their system.

Alcohol is also part of the mix, the report found: About half the dead
drivers who tested positive for alcohol also tested positive for drugs.

More than 37,000 people died in vehicle crashes in 2016, up 5.6
percent from the previous year, according to the National
Transportation Highway Safety Administration.

Using fatality data from the federal agency, Hedlund, the governors'
highway safety group's consultant, found that 54 percent of fatally
injured drivers that year were tested for drugs and alcohol. Of those
who had drugs in their system, 38 percent tested positive for
marijuana, 16 percent for opioids and 4 percent for both. The
remaining 42 percent tested positive for a variety of legal and
illegal drugs, such as cocaine and Xanax.

That means more than 5,300 drivers who died in fatal crashes in 2016
tested positive for drugs, Hedlund said. Those numbers don't include
all drivers killed in crashes or those who drove impaired but didn't
have a crash.

Driver drug testing varies from state to state. States don't all test
for the same drugs or use the same testing methods.

"A lot of the tools we developed for alcohol don't work for drugs,"
said Russ Martin, government relations director for the highway safety
group. "We don't have as clear a method for every officer to conduct
roadside tests."

Police who stop drivers they think are impaired typically use standard
sobriety tests, such as asking the person to walk heel to toe and
stand on one leg. That works well for alcohol testing, as does
breathing into a breathalyzer, which measures the blood alcohol level.

But these standard sobriety tests don't work for drugs, which can only
be detected by testing blood, urine or saliva. Even then, finding the
presence of a drug doesn't necessarily mean the person is impaired.

With marijuana, for example, metabolites can stay in the body for
weeks, long after impairment has ended, making it difficult to
determine when the person used the drug.

States have dealt with drugged driving in different ways. In every
state it is illegal to drive under the influence of drugs, but some
have created zero tolerance laws for some drugs, whereas others have
set certain limits for marijuana or some other drugs.

That creates another challenge because policymakers are trying to make
changes that aren't necessarily based on research, said Richard Romer,
AAA's state relations manager.

"The presence of marijuana doesn't necessarily mean impairment," Romer
said. "You could be releasing drivers who are dangerous and
imprisoning people who are not impaired."

In Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, there
were 51 fatalities in 2016 that involved drivers with THC blood levels
above the state's legal limit, according to the state department of
transportation. THC is the main active ingredient in marijuana, and
causes the euphoria associated with the drug.

An online survey in April by the department found that 69 percent of
pot users said they had driven under the influence of marijuana at
least once in the past year and 27 percent said they drove high almost
daily. Many recreational users said they didn't think it affected
their ability to drive safely.

In Washington state, a 2016 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic
Safety found that fatal crashes of drivers who recently used marijuana
doubled after the state legalized it.

The governors' highway safety group is recommending that states offer
advanced training to a majority of patrol officers about how to
recognize drugged drivers at the roadside.

Officers in some states already are using a battery of roadside tests
that focus on physiological symptoms, such as involuntary eye
twitches, pulse rate and muscle tone, to determine whether a driver is
impaired by drugs. And at the police station, some officers trained as
drug examiners do a more extensive series of tests to identify the
type of drug.

The safety group also wants states to launch a campaign to educate the
public about how drugs can impair driving and work with doctors and
pharmacists to make patients aware of the risks of driving while using
prescription medications such as opioids.

And it is calling on states and the federal government to compile
better data on drugged driving, including testing all drivers killed
in crashes for drugs and alcohol.

"Not every driver in a fatal crash is tested. And plenty of drivers
out there haven't crashed and haven't been tested," Martin said. "We
have good reason to believe there are more drug-impaired drivers out
there than the data shows."
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