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Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Are Prescription Drugs Causing As Many Car Accidents as Alcohol?
According to a recently released government study, West Virginia medical examiners have discovered that among the victims of fatal auto accidents, the presence of drugs is found nearly as frequently as the presence of alcohol. More surprisingly, the drugs found most frequently are prescription medicines such as painkillers and depressants.
Most states only test vehicle fatalities for alcohol. West Virginia routinely tests victims for drugs and prescription medications.
''We have very thorough and efficient medical examiners,'' said spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Resources John Law. ''Doing this has provided us with information on what besides alcohol may be contributing to these accidents. A lot of states don't have that.''
The study was released as part of the Center for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Researchers said due of a lack of national statistics, it is not possible to determine how often drugs are involved with fatal crashes across the United States at this time.
Regular testing in West Virginia has allowed CDC researchers to conclude that drugs are found in 25.8 percent of automobile fatalities. That's comparable with the percentage of victims found with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit—about 27.7 percent.
The report is based on 784 fatalities between 2004 and 2005. Drug and alcohol tests were administered to about 84 percent of the deceased. Nearly 50 percent of the victims had either alcohol or drugs in their system; 11 percent had both.
''I'm not surprised at all,'' said Jim Helmkamp, West Virginia University's Injury Control Research Center director and professor in the Department of Community Medicine.
Helmkamp said the results point toward the need for public education, similar to efforts targeting drunk driving, about the dangers of taking drugs, including prescription medications, and driving.
Prescription medications were the most commonly found drugs, such as opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone or depressants. The illegal drug found most often was marijuana, which was present in 8.5 percent of all cadavers.
Those results differ from previous studies that hadn't shown prescription medications appearing so frequently in crash deaths, said Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC Injury Center, noted that these results obviously differ from earlier studies that did not test for prescription medications in crash victims. However, Dr. Paulozzi said, ''It's a stretch to say we can extrapolate these results for the rest of the country.''
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