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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 drivers.


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 depressants.


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 as alcohol.


“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 Community Medicine.


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.