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Report: 44 pct of drivers killed in crashes had drugs in system

In 2016, a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association finds, a large percentage of drivers killed in traffic accidents had some form of cannabis or opioids in their system. Specifically, of those fatally injured drivers who were tested for drugs, 43.6 percent tested positive. Of those with positive results, 38 percent tested positive for cannabis, 16 percent for opioids, and 4 for both.

The report highlights a growing problem, and a difficult one to quantify. First of all, there is a large number of drugs drivers may use each with different effects. Second, with some drugs like cannabis and certain prescription drugs, people may test positive yet not be impaired. Third, there is no nationally accepted, scientific method for testing impairment, as opposed to the substance's mere presence.

Drivers' use of multiple substances at a time is another concern. The same 2016 numbers found that, of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for alcohol, 49 percent also tested positive for at least one drug. 51 percent of those who tested positive for drugs were found to have used two or more.

It's time to stop treating alcohol and drug impairment as separate issues, says the CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org), which funded the report. "We have to think about the combination of substances drivers are often putting into their systems at the same time."

When considering this study, it's important to understand that many drivers, even those involved or killed in crashes, are never tested for drug impairment. The data used for the report comes from roadside surveys and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which relies on local law enforcement reports. Driver drug testing varies by state, and there is no single data source that accurately documents overall drug testing results.

Again, the researchers say, the presence of a drug in a driver's system may not indicate impairment. Moreover, the exact relationship between drugs and crash risk is unclear. The strongest conclusion supported by the evidence on marijuana, for example, is that it does cause or contribute to some crashes. However, it cannot yet be said that marijuana use increases a driver's overall crash risk. The increased crash risk associated with opioids is even harder to determine.

Opioid and legal marijuana use have both skyrocketed over the last decade. At the same time, many people have operated under a false belief that these drugs don't impair driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The group recommends that states broaden their impaired driving campaigns to address issues involving marijuana, opioids and other substances and to emphasize that impairment is impairment.

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