Study Reveals Seven-Fold Increase in Opioid-Related Fatal Car Accidents

Opioid abuse and overdose has become a public health crisis in the United States, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and published in the July 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. However, most people who use or abuse opioids do not get them from drug dealers on sketchy street corners; rather, they’re obtaining them legally from their doctor after a serious injury or surgery.

The consequences of prescription opioid abuse are not confined to the person taking the drugs. Drivers who are under the influence of opioids can endanger others on the road. In the past 20 years, as prescription opioid use has become more common, the United States has seen a 700 percent increase in opioid-related fatal car accidents.

If you were seriously injured in a car accident caused by a driver who was abusing prescription opioids, you may be entitled to compensation. Here's what you need to know. Drivers using opioids

Understanding the Columbia University Study

Columbia University researchers analyzed 20 years of traffic fatality data from Rhode Island, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Illinois, California, and Hawaii—states that automatically drug test people killed in car accidents. These states focus specifically on drivers who died within an hour of a car or truck crash. The study included nearly 37,000 drivers and found that approximately 3 percent tested positive for prescription opioids.

While 3 percent may not sound particularly worrisome, the sharp increase in the number of opioid-related car accident deaths warrants concern. The number of men killed in opioid-related accidents rose from under 1 percent between 1995 and 1999 to approximately 5 percent between 2010 and 2015. For women, the increase was even more dramatic—from a little more than 1 percent to 7 percent.


While the study provides valuable insight into the opioid epidemic, it's not without limitations. For example, researchers were not able to control testing methods between different states or from year-to-year. Additionally, even though the drivers in the study tested positive for opioids, that doesn't necessarily mean that the opioids caused the fatal accidents.

Prescription Opioid Use in the United States

The rise in opioid-related fatal car accidents is hardly surprising considering that the number of prescriptions written for opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone have skyrocketed in recent years. In 1991, doctors wrote 76 million annual prescriptions for opioids. By 2014, that number had risen to 300 million. Additionally, experts estimate that every day nearly 4,000 people use prescription opioids for non-medical purposes.

How Opioid Use Can Affect Driving Performance

Many people who would never drink and drive may think nothing of getting behind the wheel after taking a pharmaceutical drug prescribed by their doctor. However, prescription opioids are powerful pain medications that can have many of the same impairing effects as alcohol, including:

  • Increased drowsiness
  • Delayed reaction times
  • Reduced cognitive functions
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Dizziness

However, while alcohol intoxication can be proven with a quick and easy Breathalyzer test, there isn't yet a comparable test for narcotic intoxication that can be used by law enforcement officers in the field. If such a test did exist, some researchers suspect that the number of opioid-related car and truck accidents would be even higher than what's reflected in the recent Columbia University study.

Just like alcohol, prescription opioids can slow your reaction time, increase drowsiness, and impair both thinking and motor skills. But unlike alcohol, there's no foolproof way to field test for narcotic intoxication yet, and proponents of the study argue that's the only thing preventing the numbers from rising even more.

Do You Need a Car Accident Lawyer?

If you were seriously hurt in a car accident caused by a driver who was impaired by prescription opioids, you may be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit and seek compensation for injuries, property damages, and other losses. Contact Holton Law Firm today to schedule a non-cost, no-obligation initial case analysis.


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