Drive Safely

Painkillers have come a long way since aspirin. But now they’re potentially affecting the ability to drive safely.

As a leader in traffic safety, AAA notes that prescription drugs are the most prevalent of all drugs found in drugged drivers involved in fatal crashes (46.5 percent), and the percentage has continually increased since 2005.

A growing reason for the increase is because of prescription opioid use. A group of experts from the Centers for Disease Control and National Safety Council recently reported some startling statistics on opioids, which include pain medications such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycodone.

First of all, a lot of people are taking them. There were 250 million opioid prescriptions filled in 2012 — more than one per adult in the nation. Arizona is among the second-highest group of states that has the most painkiller prescriptions per 100 people (82.2-95 people). 

Experts attribute the high numbers to “a culture of prescribing.” And they’re calling it a significant public health risk.

However, the public doesn’t see it that way. Safety advocate AAA has found that only 28 percent of drivers consider driving under the influence of prescription drugs a very serious threat. In comparison, 66 percent of people consider driving under the influence of alcohol a very serious threat, and 56 percent of people consider driving under the influence of illegal drugs a very serious threat.

Noah Aleshire, a policy analyst for the CDC, works on prescription drug overdose prevention policies. He noted there have been 145,000 deaths from prescription opioids in the United States over the past 10 years, although the number per year is exponentially increasing. For example, in 1999, there were about 4,000 deaths, while in 2013, there were over 17,000 deaths.

The death rate from overdoses in Arizona ranges from 14.4 to 19.4 deaths per 100,000 people. The groups most affected include: men; ages 35-54; whites; American Indians; those on Medicaid; and rural residents.

Results from a 2013-14 National Roadside Survey showed a greater number of drivers using impairing medications during the day (10.3 percent) versus nighttime (7.3 percent). Experts attributed that to the fact that many of these users are elderly and mostly travel during the day.

Though few studies yet have been completed on how opioid use affects driving, doctors are concerned. They noted that if drivers on opioids have used alcohol or other impairing drugs; suffer from depression or anxiety; are still experiencing pain; or are sleep deprived — it greatly increases their risk of crashing.

Dr. Don Teater, a medical advisor at the NSC, said that opioids actually don’t work that well at treating pain; instead, they work on the brain. 

Teater had data that compared the percentage of patients that experienced at least 50 percent pain relief from using different painkillers. The findings included: two 5 mg Percocet pills yielded relief among 37 percent of people; 200 mg ibuprofen yielded 37 percent; 15 mg of Oxycodone yielded 20 percent; acetaminophen or one Tylenol yielded 32 percent; and a combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen yielded 62 percent.

Teater noted that the ibuprofen/acetaminophen combination resulted in the most pain relief.  Another concerning trend is that opioid use often goes hand in hand with heroin use. As a result, there has been a marked increase in heroin overdoses over the past few years. In the past year, 3 out of 4 who used heroin first misused opioids, while conversely, 7 out of 10 who first used heroin also misused opioids.

As a leader in traffic safety, AAA will continue to research/continue the discussion on impaired driving/hazards that pose a danger to road users.

Valerie Vinyard is a public affairs specialist for AAA Arizona. Contact her at 

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