Study: Fatal Car Crashes Involving Marijuana Have Tripled « CBS Seattle

drugged driving 2Study: Fatal Car Crashes Involving Marijuana Have Tripled « CBS Seattle.

The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study on drugged driving (click HERE to see full report).  According to the abstract, there is increasing public concern over substance abuse affecting traffic safety results.

The study assessed trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in drivers who were killed within 1 hour of a motor vehicle crash in 6 US states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) that routinely performed toxicological testing on drivers involved in such crashes.  Their findings?

Of the 23,591 drivers studied, 39.7% tested positive for alcohol and 24.8% for other drugs. During the study period, the prevalence of positive results for nonalcohol drugs rose from 16.6% in 1999 to 28.3% in 2010 (Z = −10.19, P < 0.0001), whereas the prevalence of positive results for alcohol remained stable. The most commonly detected nonalcohol drug was cannabinol, the prevalence of which increased from 4.2% in 1999 to 12.2% in 2010 (Z = −13.63, P < 0.0001). The increase in the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs was observed in all age groups and both sexes. These results indicate that nonalcohol drugs, particularly marijuana, are increasingly detected in fatally injured drivers.

In short, fatal car crashes involving pot use have tripled in the U.S. during the study period.

“Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana,” Dr. Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, and co-author of the study told HealthDay News.

Other comments and quotes offered in the CBS article included:

“This study shows an alarming increase in driving under the influence of drugs, and, in particular, it shows an increase in driving under the influence of both alcohol and drugs,” Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, added.

“MADD is concerned anytime we hear about an increase in impaired driving, since it’s 100 percent preventable,” Withers said. “When it comes to drugged driving versus drunk driving, the substances may be different but the consequences are the same – needless deaths and injuries.”

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Of course an article that ran in Forbes (click HERE) suggests that the study may have been flawed and that testing for certain chemicals may provide “false positives”:

If “drugged driving” means operating a motor vehicle with any detectable amount of cannabinol in your blood, “drugged driving” inevitably will rise after legalization as consumption rises. But having cannabinol in your blood is not the same as being intoxicated.

Still, driving while impaired in any way endangers yourself and other drivers.  We each have a responsibility for traffic safety results and must be vigilant, sober drivers to continue to see improvements in crash rates.

rx-for-dui

More Drivers Testing Positive for Pot…

CDOT Drugged driving 1Several news reports have been published recently citing an apparent increase drivers testing positive for marijuana in Washington State since it was legalized in January.

According to Reuters:

In the first six months with pot legal in the state, 745 drivers stopped by police tested positive for the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, in their blood, the data show.

Over half of those were over the state’s new legal limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

By contrast, in each of the last two full years, about 1,000 drivers who were pulled over tested positive for THC.

The increase comes despite the fact that recreational-use pot stores will not open in Washington state until next year.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said the findings, while preliminary, indicate more people may be driving impaired than was the case before Washington and Colorado in January became the first states to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Whether people are driving under the influence of pot, alcohol or prescription drugs, Calkins said, “It all comes back to a bad decision to drive while impaired.”

Interestingly, the number of people pulled over by the State Patrol (on suspicion of driving under the influence of EITHER drugs or alcohol) during the same time period was roughly the same as each of two prior years (they’re not pulling more people over, but more have been testing positive).

rx-for-dui

A New York Daily News article that covers the situation in Washington State mentioned the following:

Washington State Patrol says it found THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, in the bloodstream of 745 drivers pulled over this year.

That’s a nine percentage point increase from where we were last year at this time, Sgt. Jason Hicks explained.

“It was previously illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana and it remains illegal,” Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told the Daily News.

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Drugged Driving: What is it?

NOTE: This article is part of a series investigating the definition of “impaired driving” as it occurs in society, traffic safety and driver safety professional networks.

Drugged driving, which can include a range of situations, seems to be on the increase.  I have to say “seems to be” since data collection and roadside testing are not as consistent for this issue as for other impairment issues such as drunk driving.

Drugged driving can occur from a number of situations:

  • use of OTC medicines,
  • use of prescription medications,
  • recreational use of illicit drugs,
  • chronic (repeat) use of illicit drugs,

Technically speaking any driver can use cold and flu remedies and drive, but if they’re involved in a crash, it may come back to haunt them in hindsight.  Many of these remedies plainly state that users should not drive withing a specified amount of time of using the medicine.

Prescribed medications can affect driving ability and it’s the duty of the doctor to make drivers aware of the possible side effects.  Per Federal regulations:

Title 49 CFR 382.213 states:

No driver shall report for duty or remain on duty requiring the performance of safety sensitive functions when the driver uses any controlled substance, except when the use is pursuant to the instructions of a licensed medical practitioner, as defined in Sec. 382.107 of this part, who has advised the driver that the substance will not adversely affect the driver’s ability to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle.

For regulated drivers (Commercial Motor Vehicle operators), there is effectively zero tolerance for illicit drug use.  So even though medical use of marijuana is legal in 18 U.S. states, regulated drivers are expressly prohibited from driving while under the influence of controlled substances; however  it’s possible that a non-regulated driver may drive while under the influence of marijuana depending on their state and local laws (most treat drugged driving as a zero tolerance policy, but not all).

For non-regulated drivers, most state laws include drugged driving with their drunk driving statutes, but some are beginning to separate the legislation to improve recordkeeping and statistics.  California is one of these states.  Specifically, AB 2552 moves each of the DUI categories – alcohol, drugs, and alcohol plus drugs – into separate sections of the vehicle code.  In other states, such as Washington and Colorado which recently approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use will have to decide how to handle drugged driving.  Early discussions have focused on determining milligrams of THC in the blood which is a parallel approach to measuring Blood Alcohol Content (although detractors claim that THC and alcohol impair people in different ways, etc.)

The impact of these initial steps to legalize recreational marijuana use on driving and crashes is hard to predict, but the increased availability may be an indicator that crashes from this form of drugged driving may rise.

A recent news report (click here) stated that;

“If a California company has its way, recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington state will one day be able to get their pot out of vending machines. “One day we envision these machines to be accessed, when it’s allowed, 24 hours a day,” Vincent Mehdizadeh, the founder and chief consultant of a subsidiary of Medbox that produces, installs and consults on the vending business, told NBC News. “

While firms look for additional ways to market marijuana to consumers, California is work to better understand the current scope of drugged driving.  The California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) recently conducted a survey of drivers and found that:

  • more drivers tested positive for drugs that may impair driving (14 percent) than did for alcohol (7.3 percent). 
  • Of the drugs, marijuana was most prevalent, at 7.4 percent, slightly more than alcohol.

  • Of those testing positive for alcohol, 23 percent also tested positive for at least one other drug. This combination can increase the effect of both substances. 
  • Illegal drugs were found in the systems of 4.6 percent of drivers
  • 4.6 percent also tested positive for prescription or over-the-counter medications that may impair driving.

  • More than one quarter (26.5 percent) of drivers testing positive for marijuana also tested positive for at least one other drug. 

According to the press release (click here) from OTS, the survey was conducted in the following manner:

“Over 1,300 drivers voluntarily agreed to provide breath and/or saliva samples at roadside locations set up in nine California cities.  The samples were collected between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, the peak times of impaired driving.  Breath samples were examined for alcohol, while saliva samples were tested for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), major illegal drugs, plus prescription and over-the-counter medications that may adversely affect driving.”

Summary

Drugged driving is a serious issue.  Crash reductions and traffic safety are every driver’s responsibility.  Being qualified medically, and being fit from a wellness standpoint, are critical to operating in a “safe manner”.  Employers may be uncomfortable with delving into the wellness of their employees, but ignoring it doesn’t work to prevent crashes either.  Education about the issue is a good place to start so that employees will be enabled to make better choices on their own about staying healthy behind the wheel.

Ultimately, employers who are already moving towards “zero tolerance” of the use of hand held cell phones and texting should be ready to institute similar policies against driving while buzzed on medications, OTC caplets or recreational drugs.

What do you think?  Join the discussion at our Facebook page, or our Linked In networking group.

About SafetyFirst — we are a driver safety firm offering best-in-class services to fleets throughout North America.  We have many imitators, but our programs have been repeatedly validated in head-to-head comparison to our competition.  Whether you are looking for a better coaching program, a way to translate greater savings from your existing telematics program, or to streamline your record-keeping processes for better management reporting (and less work), talk to us — we can help.

Drugged Driving Update — Recent News Stories

Since posting our article on medical marijuana, there have been several news reports about drugged driving and tragic crashes or court cases.  Here’s a quick overview:

  • June 6, 2012: http://www.khozradio.com/13817/white_county_man_sentenced_to_6_years_for_fatal_accident.html  “A White County Circuit Court judge has sentenced a man to six years in prison on a manslaughter count in connection with an accident that killed a Heber Springs woman.  Authorities say [the man’s] vehicle crossed the center line on Arkansas Highway 16 near Searcy in December 2009. Prosecutors say lab tests showed [the driver] had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system at the time of the crash.”

Taking risks with your own body isn’t the issue, it’s also taking risks with a stranger you might meet while driving.

  • http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_20418590/light-three-recent-fatal-accidents-chp-warns-drivers“Three recent fatal accidents in the county were caused by drivers under the influence of marijuana and the California Highway Patrol is urging residents to be aware of the impairing effects of the drug on driving.

    According to Santa Cruz CHP Cmdr. Matt Olson, 30 percent of all fatal collisions statewide are caused by a driver under the influence of drugs. Santa Cruz County is unfortunately ahead of that statistic, Olson said.

    A three-car crash on Highway 129 on Feb. 10 was caused by a young woman under the influence of marijuana. The accident killed the driver and seriously injured another person, Olson said.

    Last month, two men were killed in single-car accidents. Both were later determined to be under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, according to CHP. In one incident, a 35-year-old Aptos man lost control of his car and collided with a tree on Highway 1 at State Park Drive on March 18. In the other, a 21-year-old Felton man died on March 14 after his truck ran off the edge of Graham Hill Road and struck a tree.

    “These collisions are particularly tragic,” Olson said. “They each cut short the lives of young people with so much ahead of them and left behind devastated families.”  Sadly, these collisions were avoidable, he said, and CHP wants to prevent this from happening to others.

    In 2010, four of seven fatal accidents investigated in Santa Cruz County were caused by marijuana DUI, though in 2011, not one life was lost to a drug or alcohol-impaired driver. In response to the drug-impaired driving deaths in 2010, more CHP officers received Drug Recognition Expert Training. This year, every CHP officer in the county will receive Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement training to address the problem of impaired driving in the county.

    Whether illicitly or legally obtained, marijuana has a profoundly negative effect on the ability to safely drive a car, said Olson. Prescription and other illegal drugs also impair drivers.”

  • http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-04/D9U82C0O0.htm“Medical marijuana law no defense for Mich. drivers” – By ED WHITE

    “Michigan’s medical marijuana law doesn’t shield people from charges if they are caught driving after using the drug, the state appeals court ruled Wednesday in another significant decision involving the 2008 voter-approved law.

    A three-judge panel sided with the Grand Traverse County prosecutor in northern Michigan by restoring a criminal case against Rodney Koon, 50, a medical marijuana user who was stopped in 2010 for exceeding the speed limit by nearly 30 mph. He admitted smoking marijuana six hours earlier, and a blood test revealed the drug in his body.

    Michigan law has zero tolerance for drivers who show evidence of certain drugs, but more than 130,000 people have state-issued cards allowing them to use marijuana to alleviate pain and other symptoms of chronic illness.

    Two courts dismissed the charge against Koon, saying prosecutors had to show he was impaired. The appeals court, however, said the medical marijuana law “does not permit all types of medical use of marijuana under all circumstances.”

    “Driving is a particularly dangerous activity,” judges David Sawyer, Peter O’Connell and Amy Ronayne Krause wrote in the ruling. “Schedule 1 substances are considered particularly inimical to a drivers’ ability to remain in maximally safe control of their vehicles. The danger of failing to do so affects not only the driver, but anyone else in the vicinity.”

    A message seeking comment from Koon’s attorney, James Hunt, was not immediately returned. In a court filing, Hunt argued that drivers who use medical marijuana should be treated like other people who legally consume prescription drugs.

    A statewide association of Michigan prosecutors had called for the result delivered by the appeals court. There always will be some conduct that is considered legal, the group said, but only before someone gets behind the wheel of a car.

“Even texting, conduct that is otherwise legal and might even, at times, involve the communication of protected content under the First Amendment, is prohibited while operating a motor vehicle” in Michigan, prosecutors said in a court filing.

Many disputes over medical marijuana have hit the appeals court. In a major decision last year, the court said the new law doesn’t allow the sale of medical marijuana through pot shops. The case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.”

Unlike the legal alcohol limit, there are currently no toxicity standards for narcotics. That can make it tough for prosecutors handling drug-related cases.
Even if someone is arrested for being impaired, prosecutors say cases involving drugs can be difficult to try.

“Often times jurors assume, incorrectly, that prescription drugs should be treated differently. But the reality is, if they impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, they qualify for in the vehicle code section as a drug,” explains Wagner.

District Attorney Ricky Babin said Thursday there is evidence of illegal drug use by a mother driving the car in a February fatal crash on Stringer Bridge Road that led to the deaths of her two young daughters. The car…sank into Black Bayou after it left the roadway at 9:41 p.m. Feb. 21, according to a Louisiana State Police state report.  The crash report says laboratory tests of [the driver’s] blood sample turned up evidence of prescription drugs: hydrocodone, diazepam, venlafaxine and norvenlafaxine. A blood-alcohol analysis found no alcohol in her system.

Medical Marijuana & Driving Safely: Compatible or Paradox?

A recent news article titled; “In the medical marijuana age, how high is too high to drive?” introduced the idea of writing new traffic law to define legal limits for drugged driving. 

This concept was brought to light in Colorado by state Senator Steve King.  Twelve years ago Colorado legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and reportedly more than 85,000 people have been certified by the state health department to use it.  Looking at the time period from 2006 to 2010, there were more than 300 fatal accidents involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis.  These sobering facts are the main reason for introducing the concept of a legal limit for marijuana intoxication.

Other state legislators are making the connection between drugged driving and traffic fatalities.  In California, Assemblywoman Norma Torres reportedly wants to set a zero-tolerance ban on driving under the influence of any drug, including marijuana.

Critics of these proposals argue that the ways that cannibis affects the human body are different than alcohol, the practical testing hasn’t been developed, and medical science hasn’t concluded what limit should be set as acceptable versus unacceptable for driving while having previously used medical marijuana (or other drugs for that matter).

How are states handling this now and what do they propose?

“According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have what are known as “per se” laws regarding drugs and driving. That means anyone driving with traces of an illegal or impairing drug in his or her system is breaking the law. This is closer to a “zero tolerance” policy than the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content states have for drunk driving.

However, of those states that have per se laws, Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island also allow medicinal marijuana, setting up an inherent conflict in their laws.

Marijuana is currently on unsure legal footing: Even as states are beginning to create a legal framework for allowing use of the drug, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug alongside LSD and heroin and has recently begun raiding dispensaries and arresting cultivators. The drug’s tenuous legal hold has created “a mess for enforcement for impaired driving,” says Chris Cochran, deputy director of public information for the California Office of Transportation Safety.

…In an attempt to create something like the clear standard that exists for alcohol intoxication, Nevada set a limit for THC in the blood at 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. That’s about 2 billionths of a gram of THC – one gram is about the weight of a paperclip – in one drop of blood.

In Colorado, state King’s bill would set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. And in Washington state, the ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana would also set a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Advocates of medical marijuana say the science isn’t supportive of adopting such specific limits. They worry that this approach will cause drivers who aren’t impaired but have lingering traces of THC in their blood to lose their drivers’ licenses. [emphasis added]

Research has not found a consistent intoxication standard similar to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

While most “over the road” truckers have substance abuse screening programs in place (FMCSR Part 382, et.al.), many commercial fleet operators are not regulated in this area.  The question remains, will drivers who get approved for medical use of marijuana and report for duty on Monday morning drive safely?  What happens if they are involved in a tragic collision with fatalities and the circumstances lead to extended litigation with discovery of the alleged “impairment” of the driver?

Would these laws (as proposed in Colorado and California) be enforceable and/or helpful in curbing driving “under the influence” of medical marijuana?

Do these proposals go far enough?  Is it equally important to document what concentration of antihistamines, Valium, antipsychotics, barbiturates, and codeine (et.al.) is “too much” in a person’s system to drive safely?

Come join our discussion on this and other topics at our networking group on Linked In! (search groups for “SafetyFirst Client Networking”)