Prescription Opioids Are Contributing to More Fatal Auto Accidents

New research finds use of painkillers more than doubles the risk that a driver will set into motion a fatal two-car crash.
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A new study finds that using prescription opioids more than doubles the risk of initiating such a collision.

Unless you or a loved one have personally experienced the pain of addiction, it's pretty easy to view America's opioid epidemic as someone else's problem.

But new research makes vividly clear that the epidemic could easily impact just about anyone. And we're using "impact" in the sense of the violent, terrifying jolt you feel when the car you are traveling in smashes into another.

An analysis in the journal JAMA Network Open "provides compelling evidence that use of prescription opioids by drivers is a significant contributing factor for fatal two-vehicle crashes," Dr. Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said in announcing the findings.

Li and co-author Stanford Chihuri found that, adjusting for demographic characteristics and driving history, using prescription opioids more than doubles the risk of initiating such a collision. What's more, this heightened danger was found regardless of the driver's blood alcohol level.

Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the researchers analyzed 36,642 drivers involved in fatal two-vehicle crashes between January 1st, 1993, and December 31st, 2016. All had undergone toxicological drug testing in the wake of the tragedy.

"Before the opioid epidemic began in the mid-1990s, prescription opioids were rarely implicated in fatal motor vehicle crashes," the researchers report. Over the 24-year period they studied, the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes with opioids in their blood increased enormously—from 2 percent to 7 percent among those whose actions initiated the crash, and from just under 1 percent to 4.6 percent for the driver of the other vehicle.

The increased risk associated with opioid use is largely due to such drivers' "failure to keep in the proper lane," their analysis finds. Drifting over the line "accounted for more than half—54.7 percent—of driving errors leading to fatal two-vehicle crashes committed by drivers testing positive for prescription opioids." Among drivers who tested negative, it was the cause of only 40 percent of such accidents.

"Failure to keep in (one's) proper lane, such as crossing the center line, is a particularly dangerous error, and might be attributable to the adverse effects of prescription opioids on alertness," the researchers write.

The study reveals another of the many hidden costs of the opioid crisis.

"Driving under the influence of drugs, such as opioids, is prohibited in every state," the researchers note. But clearly, many users are unaware of this prohibition, or choose to ignore it.

Chihuri and Liu argue it is vital that physicians who prescribe these drugs emphasize the risk of using them while driving—and that patients realize alcohol is far from the only drug that can impair one's abilities behind the wheel.

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