November 30th, 2010
08:00 AM ET

Drugs common in fatal car crashes

A first-ever drug analysis of drivers killed in car crashes found one in three tested positive for drugs in 2009, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported Tuesday.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Policy, said the percentage was alarming and should serve as a wakeup call.

“We have not paid very much attention to the drugged driving issue,”  Kerlikowske, President Obama’s so-called drug czar, told CNN. “It is a significant problem.”

Kerlikowske said he wanted to raise awareness not only of the dangers of driving under the influence of illegal drugs, but of getting behind the wheel while taking powerful prescription or over-the-counter medications.

As part of a Fatal Accident Reporting System, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration tests drivers killed in crashes for narcotics, stimulants, depressants, marijuana, hallucinogens, PCP, anabolic steroids and inhalants. These include illegal drugs, prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines.

The presence of all types of drugs in fatal crashes has increased 5 percent in the past five years, according to 2005-2009 data, compiled and analyzed for the first time by NHTSA. Of the 12,055 drivers tested in 2009, 3,952 tested positive for drugs.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy did not provide a breakdown of the drugs found in drivers who died in accidents, but Kerlikowske said he suspected illegal drugs and frequently abused prescription painkillers were behind the increase.

The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 10.5 million people aged 12 or older reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs during the past year. That's about 4 percent of the population in that age range.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy figures released Tuesday do not suggest drug use was responsible for the fatal accident, nor do they implicate the driver who died. The report also doesn’t determine whether the increase might be the result of Americans taking more medications, generally.

In 2008, 48 percent of Americans said they had taken a prescription drug in the previous month, up from 44 percent a decade earlier. The use of five or more drugs in the preceding month increased from 6 percent to 11 percent during the same period, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

David W. Kaufman, associate director at the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, said the results were not inconsistent with surveys he and his colleagues have conducted.

“There’s no question that people are taking a lot of drugs, and some of these drugs might affect their ability to operate motor vehicles," he said. "I think it’s fair to say there’s more to worry about than people drinking too much.”

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.