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More than half of people involved in road accidents had drugs or alcohol in their system, study says

By Jen Christensen, CNN

More than 55% of people involved in serious or fatal road accidents tested positive for drugs or alcohol, according to a new study.

Impaired driving is one of the leading causes of fatal crashes in the United States. Alcohol and drugs can impair a person’s reaction time, thinking and physical ability to navigate the road.

Every day in the US, 29 people die in car crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and it’s unclear how many more are killed in accidents involving drivers under the influence of drugs.

However, the researchers of the new study sought to expand what’s known about road safety by looking beyond drivers. Their study, published this week by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, looked at information on passengers, bikers, electric scooter riders and pedestrians who were involved in accidents, as well as drivers.

The study found that a quarter of serious or fatal accidents involved someone who tested positive for some form of weed, and nearly a quarter more had alcohol in their system.

About 11% of people tested positive for some form of stimulant, like cocaine or methamphetamines, and 9% had opioids in their system.

In 32% of the fatal accidents and 18% of the ones with serious injuries, there were two or more drugs in the system of someone involved. That’s in line with previous research that found that the combined use of substances such as cannabis and alcohol, for instance, leads to more severe injuries and more fatal driving accidents compared with either substance alone, particularly for younger drivers.

The researchers said it’s important to note that having a substance in someone’s system doesn’t necessarily mean they were impaired.

They looked at records from September 2019 through July 2021 from Level 1 trauma centers in Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Miami; Baltimore; Worcester, Massachusetts; Iowa City, Iowa; and Sacramento, California.

The findings are not necessarily generalizable to the nation as a whole, but Amy Berning, a research psychologist who worked on the report, said the researchers chose trauma centers that represented areas with a large patient pool from urban and rural areas.

“We’ve had this concern over many years about people who are driving alcohol or drug positive,” Berning said. “We’ve seen it in other studies as well, that there’s percentages of people that we see driving and traveling other ways on the roadways as well, and it does indicate that we need to ensure that we are continuing our efforts in prevention and various countermeasures to address impaired driving.”

In February, a national survey found that more than 40% of people using alcohol or cannabis report driving under the influence.

Impaired-driving crashes “are particularly tragic because they are 100% preventible. There’s no reason and no excuse to drive impaired by alcohol or other drugs. Driving while impaired, whether by alcohol or other drugs legal or illegal, is against the law in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” said Ann Carlson, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Impaired driving is responsible for more than 10,000 deaths in the US every year, Carlson said. These numbers had been trending down for several years, said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but they’ve been creeping back up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new study’s findings strike her as “insane.”

“I think there is a message here in driving home to people that even if you aren’t the one making the wrong choice, thinking about the fact that you are on the road with people — potentially more than 50% of people — who are on something, whether it’s alcohol or other drugs, to realize the sheer magnitude of that number will not only demonstrate the reasons for the numbers of injuries and fatalities but also how it is such a problem,” Otte said. “The message that we all can be a part of the solution here is one that’s really important.”

She said it’s important to make a plan, especially around the holidays, when so many people are celebrating. Use a ride share or public transportation, or ask someone who isn’t going to drink be your designated driver.

“We want people to enjoy the holidays, spend time with family and friends. It’s been a hard few years,” Otte said. “But do so in a way that makes sure we all get to go home at night.”

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