(RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

Federal study: Drugged driving rivals alcohol in roadway fatalities

Drunken drivers have long been the scourge of the roadways, but now drivers on drugs are becoming a menace that rivals them, according to a new federal report.

A quadrupling use of prescription drugs since 1999 and legalization of marijuana use in some states are cited among the reasons drug use has become an increasing threat to roadway safety, according to a report released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of state highway safety officers.

According to the study, drugs were found in the systems of almost 40 percent of fatally injured drivers who were tested for them. That rivals the number of drivers who died with alcohol in their system.

The number of dead drivers who tested positive for drugs has increased from 29 percent in 2005 to 39.9 percent in 2013, the report said, citing federal crash data.

A report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that the study data have limitations, including no distinction between THC, the marijuana component that causes impairment, and metabolites that remain in a person’s system long after the effects of smoking pot have worn off.

Regarding whether marijuana causes an increased crash risk for drivers, study author James Hedlund said better data is needed and told the Gazette: “The jury is still very much out. You certainly could not say unambiguously that marijuana increases crash risk. The only thing you can say with confidence is that in laboratory experiments, it affects a lot of things that are related to driving.”

Hedlund is a retired executive with the federal National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

The report also draws on federal data from NHTSA roadside surveys as evidence that illegal drug use and the use of prescription medications have increased in the past five years.

“We look to the federal government to take a leadership role in this issue similar to that of drunk driving and seat-belt use,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the GHSA.

“Every state must take steps to reduce drug-impaired driving, regardless of the legal status of marijuana,” Adkins said.

The report cited three other studies that differed somewhat in linking marijuana law changes to traffic fatalities.

One found that there was an increased marijuana presence in fatally injured drivers in only three of 14 states studied.

Another focusing on Colorado said that marijuana-positive fatalities increased by about 4 percent.

The third, in California, found no change after marijuana was decriminalized there in 2011.

Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in all states.

The governors group report concludes that, “Marijuana is by far the most common drug that is used, found in roadside surveys, and found in fatally injured drivers. Marijuana use by drivers likely increases after a state permits recreational marijuana use.”

The report said the common practice of combining drugs and alcohol results in “dramatically impaired driving performance.”

In surveys and focus groups done in two states — Colorado and Washington — regular marijuana users said they felt their habit did not impair their ability to drive and, in some cases, improved it.

“They believed that they can compensate for any effects of marijuana, for instance by driving more slowly or by allowing greater headways,” the GHSA report said. “They believed it is safer to drive after using marijuana than after drinking alcohol.”

The GHSA report recommended more public education and said police officers should be better trained to identify drivers who are high on drugs. Roadside enforcement also would be helped, the report said, by widespread use of saliva devices that test for drug use.

The report said the devices identify most commonly used drugs, are available for about $20 per use, “are not intrusive” and produce results in less than five minutes.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com