The year 2015 was the first on record in which drug impairment contributed to more vehicular deaths than alcohol impairment, reports The Washington Post. Among the involved drivers tested for drugs or alcohol in 2015, 43 percent had drugs in their system, compared to 37 percent who tested positive for alcohol, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
These findings have lawmakers in California, and across the nation, scrambling to reconcile loosening drug laws and America’s opioid epidemic with efforts to reduce drugged driving deaths.
The Challenges of Fighting Drugged Driving
Drunk driving and the number of alcohol-involved fatal accidents have both dropped in California in recent years. While these deaths are decreasing, drugged driving deaths increased from 28 percent to 43 percent from 2005 to 2015.
Citizens and lawmakers hope that concerted efforts to reduce drugged driving produce results similar to those for drunk driving. But those involved in the effort face some unique challenges. Consider the following:
America’s Opioid Epidemic
While it has not hit California as hard as other states, such as West Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, the data is still stark. According to a piece in The Sacramento Bee, there are less people than opioid prescriptions in certain counties across the state.
And many of these prescription holders are getting behind the wheel. According to a 2015 study of fatally injured drivers in six states (including California), America has seen a seven-fold increase (one percent to 7.2 percent) in drivers killed under the influence of prescribed opioids since 1995.
The study also found that 30 percent of drivers who tested positive for opioids also had a higher blood alcohol concentration. Two-thirds of the opioid users tested positive for other drugs, as well. These findings are very troubling as combining alcohol and opioids can cause users to fall asleep at the wheel.
The study concluded: “The need to assess the effect of increased prescription opioid use on traffic safety is urgent.”
It is important to note that this study did not discuss illegal drugs such as heroin or fentanyl, which many drug users turn to when they cannot get a prescription. One look at the news will tell you that heroin use behind the wheel is becoming a bigger danger to drivers than it was in previous years.
Relaxed Drug Laws in California
Opioids are not the only drugs to consider. Marijuana is now legal in California for medicinal as well as recreational use, so it stands to reason that the drug will command much focus in efforts to curtail under the influence of drugs.
In fact, over 33 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2015 had used marijuana prior to driving.
There is no presumed level of intoxication for drugs in California. This makes it difficult for officers and lawmakers to stop from driving under the influence of drugs.
Beliefs and Attitudes
The biggest headwind for drugged driving might be the public’s attitude toward it. While drunk driving has become widely unacceptable, with offenders immediately branded as pariahs, much of the public has yet to latch onto the idea that many drugs — particularly marijuana — pose the same level of danger.
As for drugs, the eyes of the public are finally beginning to open to the scope of the crisis. This awareness offers the potential for new campaigns to educate people on the dangers of driving while using such drugs.
So What Can Lawmakers Do?
Based on the above analysis, it seems lawmakers might best be served to focus on three areas in their fight against drugged driving: researching and developing detection methods for a broader array of drugs, drafting stricter laws against drugged driving, and public outreach to change people’s beliefs and attitudes.
Greenberg, Greenberg & Kenyon urge drivers to stay sober before they drive. For DUI defense help, call 951-274-0003.