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Mar/Apr 2011 Issue

Drug use among fatally injured drivers has increased in last five years, NHTSA reports

Nearly one in five fatally injured drivers in 2009 had drugs in their system at the time of the crash, a growing and alarming trend revealed in a new report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In the data compiled by NHTSA, 63 percent of the nearly 22,000 drivers who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 were tested for drugs. Of these, almost 4,000 tested positive for drug involvement, representing 18 percent of the total for that year. The report also showed drug use reported by the states among fatally injured drivers increased steadily from 13 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2009.

“Too many Americans are driving after having taken drugs, not realizing the potential for putting themselves and others on the highway at risk,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

The drug data collected by NHTSA includes illicit drugs, legally prescribed drugs and over-the-counter medications. While drug involvement does not mean the driver was impaired or that drug use was the cause of the crash, Strickland described the report as a “warning signal.”

Research shows that many drugs, illicit or legal, can have adverse effects on judgment, perception, reaction time, attention, coordination and motor skills–critical skills for safe driving.

“Drugged driving is a much bigger public health threat than most Americans realize and unfortunately, it may be getting worse,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Pledge to drive drug and alcohol free, AAA implores

While 98 percent of respondents in a AAA survey said it is unacceptable for drivers to get behind the wheel when they have had too much to drink, the same survey found that one in 10 drivers had driven close to or possibly over the legal limit in the past year.

Motorists say they value safety but many exhibit an indifference to impaired driving, so to help motorists reinforce the culture of zero tolerance for driving under the influence, AAA launched TakethePledge.AAA.com. Visitors to the site can pledge to drive only when drug and alcohol-free, and they can spread the word to family and friends via Facebook and Take the Pledge e-cards.

AAA initiated the campaign because alcohol-impaired fatalities account for 32 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. An average of one death occurs every 45 minutes because of an alcohol-impaired driver.

“People mistakenly believe they can drive safely after drinking, but the statistics are a deadly reminder that they are wrong,” said Mike Right, vice president of AAA Public Affairs.

More backseat passengers are buckling up in Louisiana

Though not as high as the rate at which front-seat passengers are buckling up, the rate that backseat passengers are clicking their seat belts in Louisiana has climbed considerably thanks to a new law.

Before the law took effect in late 2009, only front-seat passengers and children were required to wear seat belts or be seated in a child safety seat. Consequently, only 27 percent of backseat passengers were buckling up. Yet with the new law in place requiring all vehicle occupants to buckle up, a survey released last year found that 58 percent of backseat passengers over 13 years old were wearing seat belts, more than double the previous rate.

“The backseat compliance rate is good considering that we’re dealing with a relatively new law that some motorists may still not fully understand,” said Lt. Col. John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

The survey also found that nearly 76 percent of front-seat passengers and drivers were buckling up, an increase of about 1 percentage point from the previous year. The national average seat belt use is about 83 percent.

Louisiana’s seat belt law is a primary enforcement law, meaning that officers can stop and ticket motorists they observe violating the seat belt law. Mississippi and Arkansas also have primary seat belt laws, but the laws address front-seat passengers only.

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In 2009, 18 percent of the fatally injured drivers tested positive for drug involvement.

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