Drugs factor in car crashes, study finds
The Charleston Gazette, December 08, 2006
(AP) The focus on the dangers of drinking and driving
may have overshadowed a similarly serious problem: the
effect of drugs, including prescription medication, on
According to a federal study released Thursday, West
Virginia medical examiners have found that drugs turn
up almost as frequently as alcohol in the victims of
fatal car crashes. The drugs found most often are
prescription medications like painkillers and
The federal Centers for Disease Control is able to
draw that conclusion because West Virginia — unlike
most states — routinely tests the victims of fatal
crashes for drugs and prescription medications as well
“We have very thorough and efficient medical
examiners,” said John Law, spokesman for the state
Department of Health and Human Resources. “Doing this
has provided us with information on what besides
alcohol may be contributing to these accidents. A lot
of states don’t have that.”
The study, released as part of the CDC’s Morbidity and
Mortality Weekly Report, said it’s impossible to
determine how often drugs are involved with fatal
crashes nationally, because of a lack of data.
But in West Virginia , the regular testing has enabled
the CDC to determine that drugs are found in 25.8
percent of people killed in wrecks. That’s similar to
the percentage of victims found with a blood alcohol
level above the legal limit — about 27.7 percent.
“These results suggest that drug use contributes
substantially to driver impairment in West Virginia ,”
the report says.
The report studied results from 2004 and 2005, when
784 people died in car crashes in the state. Drug and
alcohol tests were performed on roughly 84 percent of
those killed. Nearly half the people killed had either
alcohol or drugs in their system; 11 percent had both.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Jim Helmkamp,
director of West Virginia University ’s Injury Control
Research Center and professor in the Department of
Helmkamp said results like these indicate the need to
educate the public about the dangers of drugs —
including prescription medications — and driving,
similar to efforts warning against drunken driving.
The drugs found most often by the medical examiners
were prescription medications, usually opioid
painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone or
depressants. The illicit drug most commonly found was
marijuana, present in 8.5 percent of all victims.
Those results differ from previous studies that hadn’t
shown prescription medications appearing so frequently
in crash deaths, said Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical
epidemiologist at the CDC Injury Center . Local
factors — such as the prevalence of prescription
painkillers in West Virginia — could be part of the
cause for that.
“It’s a stretch to say we can extrapolate these
results for the rest of the country,” Paulozzi said.
There also isn’t enough data to determine how many
people with prescription medications in their system
had legally obtained them, Paulozzi said.