Nearly one-quarter of California drivers killed in car crashes last year had drugs in their system, according to a federal report released yesterday.
Of the 1,678 fatally injured drivers in California last year, 23 percent tested positive for drugs. Nationwide, drugs were found in nearly 4,000 drivers – 18 percent of those killed. That's up from 13 percent in 2005.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its analysis raises concerns that more drivers are getting behind the wheel with drugs in their system. But the agency cautioned that the presence of drugs did not indicate whether drugs impaired drivers or caused the crashes.
The findings highlight a problem safety officials are just beginning to understand. Drug-testing techniques and procedures vary widely. Many fatally injured drivers are not tested.
Drugs in the analysis include both illegal substances and over-the-counter and prescription medications. Some drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and aspirin are excluded.
On average, 63 percent of U.S. drivers were tested after fatal car crashes last year. California tested nearly 89 percent of drivers in these cases. Among those tested in the state, 60 percent were found to have no drugs in their system, while the results of 5 percent tested were unknown.
In California, the decision to test a deceased driver for drugs is up to the local coroner. State law requires blood and urine samples be taken to determine only alcohol content.
Given the testing discrepancies among coroners, the California Office of Traffic Safety said drug-involved driver fatalities are likely underreported.
"It is very inconsistent between coroners as to when they test, whom they test, what they test for," said Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the office. The office is preparing to survey coroners throughout the state about their drug-testing protocols to help develop more consistent and effective testing methods, he said.
Traffic safety agencies are working to better understand the correlation between drugs and driver impairment. So far, much of their information is anecdotal.
"While it's clear that science and state policies regarding drugs and driving are evolving, one fact is indisputable … if you're impaired, don't drive," David Strickland, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, said in a statement.
Law enforcement agents may run field sobriety tests, and order a blood or urine test for drugs if they have probable cause, said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Jaime Coffee.
But what a positive drug test means can be difficult to assess. Unlike alcohol, for which a 0.08 blood-alcohol concentration is the legal limit nationwide, impairment levels for many drugs are undetermined. For safety officials in the field, this can present challenges in identifying and documenting drug-impaired drivers.
"They have this handy little device somebody can blow into for alcohol, but they don't have that for drugs," Cochran said.
The CHP runs a program to train officers to recognize drug use. The Office of Traffic Safety also funds education programs for prosecutors in drugged driving cases, Cochran said.
Although data and understanding of drugged driving is in its infancy, Cochran said, the problem is similar to drunken driving.
"There's no one reason why people drink and drive, and there's no one reason people take drugs and drive," he said. "So there's no one, two or even three ways we can work at combating it. We have to go at it from all different angles – from law enforcement to prosecutions to early education to public awareness."