Drug use increasingly common in driver deaths

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 5:48 PM

Evidence of drug use is increasingly being found among drivers who die in automobile accidents, according to new research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Although fatalities involving alcohol have garnered far more attention, an NHTSA report issued Tuesday indicates that drug use by drivers who died increased by 5 percentage points from 2005 to 2009. The study drew no conclusion about whether the accidents resulted from drug use, which included legal and illegal drugs.

Nationally, drugs were found in 18 percent of dead drivers in 2009. The number was slightly lower in Virginia (16 percent) and higher in Maryland (25 percent) and the District (30 percent).

"Drug involvement does not necessarily imply impairment or indicate that drug use was the cause of the crash," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said. "While it's clear that science and state policies regarding drugs and driving are evolving, one fact is indisputable. If you are taking any drugs that might impair your ability to drive safely, then you need to . . . give your keys to someone else. It doesn't matter if it's drugs or alcohol; if you're impaired, don't drive."

Overall, 3,952dead drivers tested positive for drug use last year. Strickland said that some states do far more drug testing of victims than others and that many drivers who die are not tested.

Legal and illegal drugs were found during autopsies. As recorded by the nation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, they included narcotics, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, cannabinoids, phencyclidines (PCPs), anabolic steroids and inhalants.

Of the total of 33,808 people who died on the roadways last year, 17,640 were driving.

"Every driver on the road has a personal responsibility to operate his or her vehicle with full and uncompromised attention on the driving task," Strickland said. "Today's report provides a warning signal that too many Americans are driving after having taken drugs, not realizing the potential for putting themselves and others on the highway at risk."

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