A Third of Highway Deaths Involve Drugs--Yes, 33 Percent!

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(Washington, D.C. -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) As many as a third of all U.S. traffic fatalities involve drug users.

That’s the conclusion of a new analysis out today from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The alarming statistic comes from an analysis of 2009 NHTSA crash data. It shows a full 33% of all post-mortem tests on people who perished in traffic accidents had drugs in their systems. That includes illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, but also includes legal prescription and non-prescription drugs like antidepressants and pain killers. The report does not state what percentage of Americans are on drugs, including legal ones, at any given time.

Alcohol and nicotine were excluded from the analysis, suggesting that “drugged driving” is a much larger safety problem on American roadways than previously thought.

“Unfortunately, it may be getting worse,” said ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske, also known as the ‘drug czar’.

The report concludes that the incidence of positive drug tests in fatal crashes is up five percent over the last five years, even while overall traffic deaths are down.

Federal drug and auto safety officials want drugged driving to become a bigger part of efforts to cut impaired driving. They’re using the numbers to tout a White House pledge to cut drugged driving by 10% by 2015.

But now, some caveats: The NHTSA data only apply to traffic fatalities in which drug tests are performed and then later available. That is not all crashes, so the actual presence of drugs in fatal crashes could be much higher than 33%. On the other hand, the analysis doesn’t separate high levels of drugs—levels that lead to significant impairment—with lower levels that may not.

For example, marijuana stays in the body for 4-6 weeks after its smoked. So the simple presence of marijuana in a driver’s system doesn’t mean he or she used the drug immediately before driving. Also, drugs like antidepressants, while they can be impairing in large doses or if they cause drowsiness, are not necessarily intoxicating when taken day after day. Again, a positive test is a long way from proving the drug caused, or even played a role in, a crash.