Prescription drugs overtake cannabis in fatal crashes

Increases in multiple drug use, prescription drug use in drugged driving fatalities

Philadelphia, June 23, 2014 – Since 1993, the profile of a drugged driver has changed substantially. A study released today in Public Health Reports shows that more drivers are now testing positive for prescription drugs, cannabis, and multiple drugs, and they are more likely to be older than 50.

“While we’ve seen a decrease over the years in motor vehicle fatalities involving people under the influence, the nature of those crashes is changing,” said study author Fernando Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The study examines trends in the characteristics of U.S. drivers who have been involved in fatal crashes between 1993 and 2010 and test positive for drugs. The study was funded by the Public Health Law Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to investigate the relationship between state laws and the consumption of alcohol and other drugs on fatal car crashes. Learn more about the study and see additional findings here.

The study finds that the percentage of drugged drivers with three or more drugs in their system nearly doubled from 1993 to 2010, increasing from 11.5 percent to 21.5 percent.

“In 1993, about 1 in 8 drivers were using multiple drugs concurrently. By 2010, it was closer to 1 in 5. That’s a large increase in drug use,” Dr. Wilson said.

“Beyond that, we’re also seeing more and more people using drugs and alcohol together. About 70 percent of drivers who tested positive for cocaine had also been consuming alcohol, and almost 55 percent of drivers who tested positive for cannabis also had alcohol in their systems,” he explained.

The study also notes trends in drug use associated with age: Almost 60 percent of marijuana-only users were younger than 30 years old, and 39 percent of prescription users were 50 years old or older.

This trend seems to be in line with an overall increase in the use of prescription drugs by Americans, and the older population in general—90 percent of people ages 65 and older have prescription expenses.

“These trends are likely to continue into the future given the aging U.S. population, an increasing reliance on prescription medications by medical providers, and increasing initiatives to legalize marijuana” Dr. Wilson said. “However, it is unclear whether current state policies are completely up to the challenge of addressing the growing issue of drugged driving.”

Eighteen states currently have “per se,” or zero tolerance, laws for drugged drivers. Recent studies have shown, however, that these laws may not have been effective in decreasing traffic deaths.

To address these trends the authors suggest that policy-makers consider measures that would increase primary prevention of drug use by drivers, including curbing prescription drug use by drivers through counseling by medical professionals, and increasing affordable access to mass transit.

In 2010, 42 states had prescription monitoring programs that included Schedule II drugs (prescription drugs). These programs are meant to curb drug abuse, and specifically prevent overdose. Learn more about prescription monitoring program laws at LawAtlas.org.

Public Health Law Research (PHLR) is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with direction and technical assistance by Temple University. The program is dedicated to building the evidence base for laws that improve public health. PHLR funds research, improves research methods, and makes evidence more accessible to policy-makers, the media, and the public. For more information about PHLR, visit www.publichealthlawresearch.org.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu and follow us on social media.


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Vicky Cerino
UNMC Public Relations
(402) 559-5190