A new study that was released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) last week departs from the usual focus on alcohol use as a contributing factor in fatal car accidents and scrutinizes, for the first time, the role that drugs play in motor vehicle fatalities.
Although studies on drunk drivers abound, there is a dearth of existing research that examines how many motorists on the road have some type of drug in their system. Information also lacks concerning what kinds of drugs are routinely being ingested, how often drivers' drug use contributes to vehicle crashes - especially fatal accidents - and how many drivers who die in automobile crashes test positive for drugs in autopsies.
The NHTSA report probes into all of these areas. It notes, for example, that drugs were found in about 18 percent of drivers nationwide who were involved in fatal accidents over a recent five-year period. (In Maryland, that number was comparatively high, being 25 percent). It notes additionally that drug use has increased over that period, as well.
Nearly 4,000 deceased drivers last year tested positive for drugs, as reported by states across the country. Those drugs indicate use across a broad spectrum, ranging from narcotics and depressants to stimulants, hallucinogens, steroids and various inhalants.
The NHTSA stops short of drawing conclusions from its study, noting that it is simply too difficult to know in many cases whether drug use was a proximate cause of a roadway death. Although drugs such as cocaine and marijuana were found in the bodies of many fatal accident victims, so, too, were prescription medications not commonly associated with driver impairment.
The agency also cites a flaw deriving from reporting inconsistencies. Some states routinely test for drugs, while others don't.