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Marijuana and opioids found in high percentage of traffic deaths

The impact of drinking and driving has on traffic safety is well documented, but a new report points to an increase in positive drug tests in cases of traffic fatalities. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) who commissioned the report, over 50 percent of drivers tested in traffic fatalities tested positive for marijuana, opioids or a combination of the two.

By the numbers

Using data pulled from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and NHTSA roadside surveys in the United States and Canada, the study found an increase in positive drug tests in fatalities, going from 28 percent overall in 2006 to 44 percent overall in 2016. The recent breakdown is:

  • 38 percent tested positive for marijuana
  • 16 percent tested positive for opioids
  • 4 percent tested positive for both

The report added that alcohol continued to be a significant issue with driver fatalities, but it did go down from 41 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2016.

The challenges of drug testing

There is no doubt that many drugs impair judgment and reaction time, but there is still much to learn with drug testing. 

  • Drugs can remain in the blood system even if there is no longer impairment
  • Drugs affect people differently
  • There is no national standard test for impairment, which means findings will vary from test to test and state to state
  • Testing is more complicated because there is a substantial number of drugs that can potentially be tested for

Drug use on the rise

There is no doubt that decriminalization and legalization of marijuana is having an impact. While there are no accurate numbers for marijuana impairment at this time, the study's authors felt comfortable estimating that one quarter of all traffic deaths involved marijuana. Moreover, with the opioid epidemic continuing to grow, there seems little doubt that data involving drug-related traffic fatalities will reflect that growth over the next ten years.

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