TAYLORSVILLE — The opioid epidemic has been harming our community in a growing number of ways. The powerful painkillers are detected more often in drivers today who cause fatal crashes than a decade ago.
That’s according to a new national study in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Utah statistics.
That trend reflects how pervasive the opioid epidemic has become — and it’s alarming to safety advocates and law enforcement.
On average, 45 people die each year in Utah in a crash caused by a driver who tested positive for drugs.
“We do see it a lot,” said Sgt. Nick Street with the Utah Highway Patrol.
When he patrolled I-15 on the Wasatch Front, he encountered drivers impaired by opioids more often than he expected.
“Not just prescription opioids, but illegally obtained prescription opioids, heroin and those things. It was quite common to run into that,” he said.
What he saw on the roads is reflected in the Journal of the American Medical Association study. In that study, researchers from Columbia University found that in fatal, two-car crashes drivers who caused the crash were nearly twice as likely as those who were not at fault to test positive for opioids.
“That’s disturbing,” said Street. “That’s an alarming trend.”
Here in Utah, a dozen years ago, the drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for drugs in 6.5 percent of the crashes. By 2016, it was nearly a third of the crashes: 30 percent. The deaths resulting from those crashes rose from 20 to 80.
“A definite rise, yes, from when I first started working the road a decade ago to what we have today,” said Street. “It seems like we encounter it a lot more.”
Ten years ago, Street saw more alcohol-related DUIs. Those fatal crashes have remained relatively steady in Utah, while the drug-related fatal crashes have surged.
A dozen years ago in Utah, opioids showed up in the blood of drivers in five fatal crashes. Ten years later, opioids were detected in the blood of drivers in 28 fatal crashes — a dramatic rise.
“The numbers are staggering from where it was 10 years ago to where it is today,” said John Gleason, Utah Department of Transportation spokesman and safety advocate for Zero Fatalities.
Most people take opioids for acute pain prescribed by their doctor. Others abuse the drugs. The effects on the road can be the same.
“You hear about the opioid epidemic every day the news, and it’s really being reflected on our roads,” said Gleason. “If you’re on these prescription painkillers and you get behind the wheel the results can be the same as if you were using heroin or any other illicit drugs.”
“We’ve had to adapt our training to identify different substances,” said Street.
A person on opioids they pull over in a traffic stop looks different than what they see with marijuana and alcohol. There is no breathalyzer for prescription drugs. So troopers are getting advanced roadside impairment detection in order to combat those encounters.
“It’s very disconcerting,” said Street. “It’s not enough that we’re all out there making sure we’re safe around other motorists. But now we have this added issue where almost one-third of our fatal crashes are coming by individuals whose blood results come back for some type of substance.”
The Utah Highway Patrol continues to study the data, he said, and adjust their enforcement efforts accordingly.
“It’s one more thing the public has to look out for and be aware of that could potentially be a public safety issue for them on the roadway,” Street said.