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Study shows the growing road safety dangers of opioid use

Drivers who cause fatal car accidents in New Jersey and around the country are more than twice as likely to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol as the other motorists involved. This was what researchers from Columbia University discovered after studying accident data on more than 18,000 deadly crashes from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is managed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The results of the study were published in the February 2019 issue of JAMA Network Open.

The researchers were not surprised to discover that 5,258 of the motorists found responsible for causing the accidents were driving under the influence of alcohol while only 1,815 of the other drivers involved consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel. However, they were shocked to find out how common opioid impairment on the nation's roads has become. Only 2% of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in 1993 tested positive for opioids. That number has since more than tripled.

The study concludes that spiraling opioid use is making the roads more dangerous, but this finding has been questioned by pain management experts. These experts cite studies that show individuals who take drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone build up a tolerance for the medications and can operate cars as well as an unimpaired driver, and they say the results of the study highlight the misuse rather than the use of the drugs.

Criminal prosecutions for driving under the influence of opioid medications are rare because linking the amount of medicine in an individual's blood to their degree of impairment is difficult, but the standard of proof is not as strict in civil court. The plaintiffs in car accident lawsuits must only convince the jury that their claims are most likely true, and establishing that the defendant had been prescribed narcotic drugs could go a long way toward meeting this burden. Experienced personal injury attorneys might seek to gather this type of evidence by issuing subpoenas to obtain medical records.

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