One-third of deceased drivers tested are positive for drugs, NHTSA finds

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December 28, 2010

One-third of deceased drivers tested are positive for drugs, NHTSA finds 

Courtney L. Davenport

One-third of drivers tested for drugs in 2009 after being killed in a collision had drugs in their system, according to the first study of the involvement of drugs in fatal crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Because many states do not regularly test deceased drivers for drugs, only 63 percent of the 21,798 drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes last year were tested. Of the 12,055 drivers for whom test results are available, 3,952, or 33 percent, tested positive—a percentage that has steadily risen over the last three years.

The agency cautioned that the data includes both illegal narcotics and prescription medications, which might not have been misused, and that the presence of drugs doesn’t mean the driver’s drug use caused the crash.

Safety advocates have argued for years that driving under the influence of drugs is a common but under-recognized phenomenon. Few studies have evaluated the prevalence of driving under the influence of drugs because there are no tools like breathalyzers and field sobriety tests to measure drug use. A 2007 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 9.9 million people reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs in the last year, and a 2005 study of injured drivers in a Level I trauma center found that 51 percent of the drivers tested positive for drugs, while only 31 percent tested positive for alcohol.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 19 states have per se laws that forbid the presence of any prohibited drug in a driver’s body—but those laws have no teeth if drivers aren’t tested for drugs. Although NHTSA has a training program to help police officers detect drug impairment in drivers, traffic safety advisers—including those at NHTSA—say few officers undergo the training and most are taught to focus on alcohol detection.

“Overreliance on portable breath test devices, which may indicate the absence or low amounts of alcohol, may result in impaired drivers being released,” said a group of toxicologists, drug recognition experts, and prosecutors in a report sponsored by NHTSA in 2004. “Signs of drug effects in drivers such as fast or confused speech, excessive sweating, abnormal pupil size, muscle tics or tremors, or body odors, all of which can be important clues to drug impairment, may be overlooked by officers without appropriate training.”

Trial lawyers say the lack of investigation or documentation makes it hard to bring tort claims against drivers who might have been using drugs.

“I think it is very common for drivers to have drugs in their system; however, it’s very difficult to prove unless the police intervene with blood tests, especially with all the pain medications out there,” said Benjamin Sansone of Clayton, Missouri, who has represented plaintiffs injured by impaired drivers. “Hopefully the [NHTSA] study makes law enforcement aware that they need to look further if they suspect there’s something going on.”

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