Chalkboard with a drawn car crossed out

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – What do you think of when you think of a DUI arrest? What images come to mind? Beer cans, wildly blinking police lights, a person staggering and stumbling through a series of balance tests. But that’s all changed. Driving under the influence used to mean just alcohol. But there’s a new influence in town that can be sneakier to catch – prescription drugs.

It is hard to measure the exact contribution of the use of prescription pain meds in accidents, because many drivers have both drugs and alcohol in their system, making it hard to determine the contributing chemical. But one study found 18% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one prescription drug.

Just yesterday, a driver under the influence is suspected of killing 3 people and injuring 12 in Redondo Beach. We all know this is a problem.

What’s worse: it’s slipping under the radar gun for most law enforcement agencies. Most people addicted to prescription pain meds can pull it together for a few minutes to talk to an officer. You can’t smell it. When you get pulled over and an officer asks “have you been drinking?”, you can honestly say, “No”.

Let’s take a look at the statistics:

  • The National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers, a nationally representative survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), found that in 2007, approximately one in 8 weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illicit drugs.
  • An Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) analysis of 2009 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) census shows that roughly one in 4 (23%) of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs were under the age of 25.
  • Overall, 3,952 fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs in 2009.
  • Data from NHTSA’s FARS shows that 1 in 3 deceased drivers with known drug-test results tested positive for drugs (illegal substances as well as over-the-counter and prescription medications).
  • In a study of fatally injured drivers in Washington State, 370 drivers who died within 4 hours of a crash between February 1, 2001 and January 31, 2002 were tested for impairing substances. Blood and serum specimens were tested showing 62% of drivers were positive for drugs and/or alcohol.

There are programs in place to curb this epidemic. There’s the Department of Transportation’s “Over the Limit, Under Arrest” initiative, as well as the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program, which aids state and local jurisdictions in detecting and arresting drugged drivers. But, as Taylor Swift says in her song “Bad Blood”, band-aids DON’T fix bulletholes.

It’s impossible to ignore that prescription drugs are the new “I” in DUI. The problem is, it goes undetected. We know the signs to watch out for in someone under the influence of alcohol. So, what are some of the signs that tell us someone is too medicated to drive?

  • Euphoria or feeling “high” (in an almost disturbing manner): Someone high on amphetamines, anti-depressants, barbituates, codeine, ecstasy, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine or wellbutrin may exhibit this symptom. It is a feeling of intense excitement or happiness and overconfidence almost to an alarming level.
  • Reduced sense of pain: Abuse of hydrocodone, acetaminophen, tramadol, neurontin and oxycodone might raise the pain threshold in someone, causing them to not even feel or give a physical response to things that would normally cause them hurt or harm.
  • Drowsiness or sedation: Narcotics used to relieve pain such as codeine or morphine, and certain anti-anxiety medications such as diazepam, lorazepam and alprazolam can cause someone to feel abnormally sleepy during a time when they’re normally awake. They may fall asleep at inconvenient or inappropriate times.
  • Slurred speech: Someone abusing an anabolic steroid (anadrol, oxandrin, durabolin) or inhalant (paint thinner, gasoline, glue) may have a hard time communicating. They will exhibit poor pronunciation and articulation vocally.
  • Problems with attention and memory: Someone abusing anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines and some cholesterol lowering drugs (or statins) may not remember who they are, where they are, or not recognize people they are around on a regular basis.
  • Constricted Pupils: Drugs like heroin, fentanyl and codeine stimulate the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system and cause their pupils to constrict. The pupil is the black center part of the eye and it may get smaller for someone who is using.
  • Lack of awareness or inattention to surrounding people or things: Use of opiates, narcotics or sedatives can cause a reduced state of awareness during which the user is oblivious to things in their environment they would normally react to.
  • Problems with coordination: Club drugs such as ecstasy, molly (MDMA), or gammahydroxybutyric (GHB) can cause someone to experience tremors and a lack of coordination in their movements such as jerking or losing control of their extremities.
  • Depression: Depression can be the result of a number of drugs from accutane (used to treat severe acne) to barbiturates (central nervous system depressants that slow down brain function). They can cause someone to be sad, blue, unhappy or completely miserable.
  • Confusion: Antidepressants, antihistamines, narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and even anticholinergics (used for bladder control problems) can cause someone to feel a bewilderment that may come and go very fast or could last for a long period of time.
  • Sweaty, clammy skin: A user’s skin may become wet or sticky especially if they are experiencing toxic shock or withdrawal.

The good news is that addiction to prescription medications is a preventable disease. No one else has to die or potentially cause an accident. There is help. If you or someone you love is fighting this disease, call Vertava Health at (615) 208-2941 or go to our website, Any media who would like to schedule an interview with one of our experts can contact me 24/7.


Brian Sullivan

Public Relations Manager

[email protected]


Twitter: @AddictionCampus

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