In 2017, it was more common for an American to die of an opioid overdose than in an auto accident.

In 2017, the National Safety Council reported that Americans were more likely to die from an opioid overdose than in a motor vehicle crash. However, when you put the two together, the results can be even more deadly.

As of yet, no large, randomized studies have been conducted regarding the risks of driving while under the influence of prescription opioids: hydrocodone, oxymorphone, morphine, codeine, and fentanyl. However, experts agree that opioids slow reaction time, produce dizziness, lead to drowsiness, and impair judgment, particularly when the medications are started or increased, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Opioid Management.

When it comes to causing an auto accident, legal systems do not generally distinguish between a pain patient taking the proper dose of a prescribed painkiller and someone abusing an illegal drug. Perhaps this is because drivers under the influence of illicit drugs often experience similar side effects to those who are taking prescription opioids, such as:

  • Sedation, or drowsiness, occurs in between 20 percent and 60 percent of patients, primarily during the onset of treatment and around the time of dosage increases. While this typically resolves in a few days, if it persists, the dose might need to be reduced.
  • Difficulty concentrating is a common side effect of those taking opioids, since these medications are intended to bind to the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body to block pain signals, impairing psychomotor and cognitive skills that are necessary for safe driving.
  • Drug tolerance is a risk for many patients who find that they need a higher and higher dosage of opioids to achieve the same pain-reducing effects.
  • Addiction is frequently a possibility with opioid medications, since after taking them for an extended period of time, patients will sometimes misuse them by compulsively seeking out the pain medications when they are no longer needed for pain relief, taking opioids in a way or dose other than as prescribed, taking someone else’s medication, or taking the medicine to get high.

These side effects could all potentially render a motorist too impaired to drive, even one who is taking opioids while under the care of a physician. However, those who are addicted to opioids pose an even greater risk while behind the wheel of an automobile.

Opioid Use Associated with Inattentive Driving

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), prescription opioid use was associated with a significantly increased risk of causing vehicle accidents, largely because of failure to stay in the proper lane, failure to yield right of way, and exceeding the posted speed limit. Among the 1,467 drivers studied who tested positive for prescription opioids, 31.7 percent tested positive for hydrocodone.

Before the mid-1990s, prescription opioids were rarely a factor in fatal car accidents, detected in just 1 percent of fatally injured drivers. However, the proportion of fatally injured drivers who had been using prescription opiates (independent of alcohol use) has increased significantly over the past 20 years, rising from 2 percent in 1993 to 7.1 percent in 2016, the JAMA study concluded.

If you sustained an injury in an auto accident that involved a driver impaired by opioids, contact Colorado personal injury attorney Dan Rosen for a free consultation to discuss the details of your case.

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