Half of those hurt or killed in crashes used drugs or alcohol

drunkstop-300x161As federal, state, and local officials seek to slash the nation’s spiking road toll of injury and death, law enforcement authorities need to crack down on the scary prevalence of motorists who get behind the wheel while intoxicated by marijuana or alcohol.

Indeed, as NPR reported:

“A large study by U.S. highway safety regulators found that more than half the people injured or killed in traffic crashes had one or more drugs, or alcohol, in their bloodstreams. Also, just over 54% of injured drivers had drugs or alcohol in their systems, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active ingredient in marijuana, the most prevalent, followed by alcohol, the study published [Dec. 13] by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found. Although the study authors say the results can’t be used to gauge drug use on the roads nationwide, they say the high number of drivers, passengers, and other road users with drugs in their systems is concerning.”

Researchers found that 1 in 5 motorists on the road tested positive for two or more drugs, including booze, NPR reported. Distressing measurements like these are only fueling already urgent efforts to lessen the increasing and costly injury, debilitation, and death that too many motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists are suffering on the nation’s streets:

“The study of blood tests taken at seven level-one trauma centers and four medical examiners’ offices across the country comes at a critical time on U.S. roadways. Traffic deaths have risen dramatically since the start of the pandemic to what officials describe as crisis levels. And more states are legalizing recreational use of marijuana with research just starting about the impact on traffic safety … The study took place between September of 2019 and July of 2021 at trauma centers in Miami and Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Baltimore; Worcester, Mass.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Sacramento, Calif. Medical examiners at four of the sites also took part. The study, which took blood-test data from 7,279 road users, also found that more than half of injured pedestrians and just over 43% of injured bicyclists had a drug in their bloodstreams. Of the total number of patients, 25.1% tested positive for THC, 23.1% for alcohol, 10.8% for stimulants and 9.3% for opioids, according to the study.”

Experts say the study did not span enough geography to allow its findings to be nationally representative. Its measures, NPR reported, did not allow experts to determine individuals’ levels or impairment, nor to find even a correlation between drug use and spiking road deaths.

Still, the study should add to increasing evidence — as well as real and painful experience — of the nation’s huge problems with substance abuse. No one envisions a return to blue nose eras when authorities demonized devil weed and even sought to prohibit alcohol use.

But marijuana and alcohol both, clearly, cannot be portrayed by their users and advocates as being harm free. Quite the opposite. Young people, law enforcement officials have warned, put themselves at heightened risk these days that criminals have restored to tainting their wares, even less powerful street products like grass with fentanyl, the extremely potent and even lethal synthetic opioid painkiller.

The Washington Post has published a grim series on fentanyl’s explosion as a deadly illicit substance, and the Wall Street Journal also has put out scary information on this menace.

In my practice, I and my colleagues see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage inflicted on pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers by motorcycle, vehicle, and truck wrecks. The country had made significant progress in reducing road harms but the positive trends reversed in recent years and went off the rails during the pandemic.

We are all now to too vulnerable to the personal, medical, and financial havoc that can result when we just happen to step into an intersection when a careless motorist decides to speed through, or when we are riding home at night and an intoxicated driver loses control. We have an individual responsibility to right this wrong. We can slow down (as the district has encouraged us to do by reducing speed limits). We can redouble our caution for pedestrians and bike riders. We can use the many, effective safety devices in our vehicles, notably seat belts and other restraints.

We can do our part to ensure we don’t drive while distracted — especially while texting or using electronic devices — drunk, drugged (with recreational or prescription drugs), or otherwise impaired, especially by sleepiness. We can return to the fundamental idea of reciprocal altruism by restoring basic courtesy, consideration, and concern for others. This means we take to heart the idea that we won’t, and neither will others, engage in reckless, aggressive conduct behind the wheel — flouting common sense laws, speeding, and ignoring stop and other signs.

We have much work to do to attack the record-setting opioid crisis, and, as well, to curb dramatically the unacceptable levels of injury, debilitation, and death on our roads.

Photo credit: screen capture of law enforcement road side sobriety checks from NHTSA ‘drive sober or get pulled over’ video
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