Drivers who consume opioid medications and get behind the wheel put themselves, other motorists, and pedestrians at serious risk of injury or death. A significant number of people are consuming opioid medications and then driving motor vehicles. In doing so, they are willfully breaking the law and causing death and destruction along their route.
Opioid Abuse in America
The National Institute for Drug Abuse estimates that 130 people per day overdose on opioids. These include legally obtained prescription pain relievers and illegally purchased opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and stolen or fraudulently acquired prescriptions. Nationwide, the abuse and misuse of opioids cost the American economy nearly $80 billion in lost productivity, healthcare expenses, and criminal justice enforcement.
In 2017, 47,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses and 1.7 million individuals were estimated to have active addictions to prescription opioid medications. These rates are increasing even as the number of people prescribed opioids are declining.
In the decade from 2006 to 2016, the number of opioids prescribed per 100 patients declined from 72.4% to 66.5%. While the number of people prescribed these medications declined during this period, the number of prescriptions written exceeded a staggering 214 million per year. Of those prescribed opioids for pain management, it is estimated that up to 29% of these individuals abuse these drugs.
The number of overdoses caused by these prescriptions shows the true dangers these drugs create for users. From July 2016 to September 2017, the number of recorded opioid overdoses skyrocketed 30% in 45 states. In Nevada, there were 408 opioid-related overdoses in 2016. The state recorded 13.3 deaths per 100,000 individuals which were on par with the national rate of fatal overdoses. These statistics paint a grim and alarming picture and it is clear that opioids are causing severe harm to those who take these medications, and those who encounter them on the roadway.
Drugs and Driving Don’t Mix
While the CDC and NIDA study the opioid epidemic, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is turning its attention to the impact the epidemic is having on traffic safety. The NHTSA studied 18,321 two-vehicle accidents that took place between 1993 and 2016. The study showed that 54.7% of motorists killed in these accidents tested positive for prescription opioid medications. This is a significant increase over previous studies conducted in the early 1990s that showed opioids were a factor in less than 1% of driver fatalities. Overall, it is estimated that opioids are involved in 7% or more fatal motor vehicle accidents in the United States.
Effects of Opioids on Driving Ability
Safely operating a motor vehicle requires a driver’s full attention. It requires the ability to physically manage the vehicle, focus cognitive function, and to correctly perceive and interpret information. Opioid medications significantly limit a driver’s ability to perform these essential tasks.
Opioid medications can cause dizziness and severe drowsiness. They can profoundly alter the individual’s cognitive functions. Opioids diminish reflexes similarly to alcohol. This makes safely operating a motor vehicle impossible. In the case of illicit drugs such as heroin, these effects can last for roughly 30 minutes. With drugs such as morphine or fentanyl, the effects can persist for 4-6 hours or more. It is for this reason that prescription opioids carry a staunch warning against operating a motor vehicle after ingesting these medications.
Drivers who use opioids and then operate a motor vehicle are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal two-vehicle accident. Motorists on opioid medications have difficulty remaining in their lane of travel. These drivers have a tendency to meander into opposing traffic, swerve, and jump barriers designed to protect pedestrians and other vehicles.
Drugged Driving in Nevada
Drugged driving in Nevada can result in incarceration, fines, and license suspension. Testing for opioids is conducted via either urinalysis or blood test. Drivers who are over the legal limit of 2,000 nanograms of morphine, heroin, or other opioids per milliliter or urine, or 50 nanograms per milliliter of blood can be arrested and charged with drugged driving.
Driving under the influence of drugs is a misdemeanor charge. However, it is automatically classified as a felony if the driver causes an accident that causes serious harm or a fatality. Similarly, it is a felony if it is the individual’s third offense in seven years.
Depending on the number of offenses the individual is guilty of, penalties range from 2 days in jail to 20 years in prison fines of $400 to $5,000 and license suspension of 185 days to 3 years.
When an opioid-related accident causes injuries or death, repeat offenders and those who were grossly negligent may be ordered to pay punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.