The use of prescription opioids by drivers is increasingly implicated as a contributing cause of fatal motor vehicle crashes, according to a new study published in the JAMA Network Open.
Authors Dr. Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and Stanford Chihuri a staff associate at the Department of Anesthesiology, found that using prescription opioids more than doubles the risk of initiating a car collision, regardless of the driver’s blood alcohol level.
Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the researchers analyzed 36,642 drivers involved in fatal two-vehicle crashes between January 1st, 1993, and December 31st, 2016. All had undergone toxicological drug testing in the wake of the tragedy.
Before the opioid epidemic began in the mid-1990s, prescription opioids were rarely implicated in fatal motor vehicle crashes, the researchers said.
Over the 24-year period they studied, the percentage of drivers in fatal crashes with opioids in their blood increased enormously—from 2 percent to 7 percent among those whose actions initiated the crash, and from just under 1 percent to 4.6 percent for the driver of the other vehicle.
The increased risk associated with opioid use is largely due to such drivers’ “failure to keep in the proper lane.”
Drifting over the line “accounted for more than half—54.7 percent—of driving errors leading to fatal two-vehicle crashes committed by drivers testing positive for prescription opioids.” Among drivers who tested negative, it was the cause of only 40 percent of such accidents.
“Failure to keep in (one’s) proper lane, such as crossing the center line, is a particularly dangerous error, and might be attributable to the adverse effects of prescription opioids on alertness,” researchers wrote.
Clinicians should take into consideration the adverse effect of opioid analgesics on driving safety while prescribing these medications and counseling patients, the authors concluded.
A full copy of the report can be found here.