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Study: More drivers in fatal crashes had drugs, versus alcohol, in system

Officers of the Suffolk County Police conduct a

Officers of the Suffolk County Police conduct a field-sobriety test at the scene of an overturned vehicle at Northbound Nicolls Road. August 8, 2018 Credit: ANDREW TETREAULT

More Long Island drivers were killed in automobile crashes in 2016 with drugs in their blood than with alcohol, reversing a nearly decadelong trend, according to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

On Long Island, 36 motorists killed in crashes tested positive for drugs in 2016 compared with 19 who tested positive for alcohol, according to data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

“Numerous factors seem responsible for increased drugged driving, including the use of opioids and more states legalizing marijuana, leading to increased acceptance of marijuana-impaired driving” said AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr.

Suffolk County had 25 drugged driver deaths in 2016 — the most in the state for that year — although that is down from 32 in 2015, the report shows. Nassau ranked second with 11 drugged driving deaths, down from 19 one year earlier, the data show.

The AAA findings focus exclusively on the driver.

If the crash data were expanded to include passengers killed in vehicle crashes in 2016, alcohol-impaired fatalities would exceed crashes in which the motorist tested positive for drugs, the data shows.

Surprisingly, despite the record pace of deaths from overdoses of dangerous opioids, Long Island drivers killed in vehicle crashes in 2016 more frequently tested positive for marijuana than any other single drug, the data show.

In total, 17 motorists who died in crashes on Long Island tested positive for marijuana — 10 in Suffolk and 7 in Nassau — compared with 19 who tested positive for other drugs.

Statewide, 29 drivers who died in crashes tested positive for narcotics while 83 tested positive for cannabinoids, according to AAA Northeast, which analyzed the crash data.

Marijuana advocates and law enforcement officials contend the statistics can be misleading.

For example, unlike alcohol, amphetamines and cocaine, which typically disappear from an individual’s blood system within 12 hours, marijuana can be detectable for several weeks.

In the case of motorists who tested positive for marijuana after a fatal crash, it’s impossible to know if cannabis played a contributing role, or if the driver used the drug weeks earlier, said Jolene Forman, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, a Manhattan-based group that advocates for “sensible” drug laws.

“There is no way to attribute these numbers to marijuana use,” Forman said. “These numbers do not tell us the cause of the impairment.”

Suffolk Police Chief Stuart Cameron agreed and said the figures “don’t portray an accurate picture” of the safety of county roadways.

Cameron said the county’s size, population and reliance on motor vehicles lead to a higher number of fatal crashes than other municipalities but that the number is heading down due to better driver education, engineering improvements and enforcement techniques.

“The roads of Suffolk County are safer than they‘ve been in a long time, period“ Cameron said.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said in a statement: “Last year there were three deaths in Nassau County attributable to auto accidents while operating a vehicle while under the influence of marijuana. One death is too many and our concern is that legalization will place the public and police in further danger.”

Fatal vehicular crashes of all types have been trending down in New York State for two decades, the data show.

In Nassau, 78 people overall were killed in roadway crashes — including passengers — compared with 95 in 2015, while 139 people were killed in Suffolk crashes in 2016 compared with 168 in 2015, according to the NHTSA.

Statewide, 133 drivers killed in automobile crashes in 2016 tested for drugs compared with 95 who tested positive for alcohol, AAA found.

The report also shows that August is the most dangerous month for drugged drivers and that young motorists under the age of 21 received the most tickets for driving under the influence of drugs.

But the federal data include a number of caveats that could skew the results.

A total of 25 motorists killed in motor vehicle crashes on Long Island in 2016 were not tested for drugs and alcohol. Six drivers that tested positive for narcotics also had alcohol in their system, the data show. And of the 17 Long Island drivers who tested positive for marijuana, eight also had narcotics or alcohol in their system, the figures show.

Maureen McCormick, top deputy to Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, said law enforcement officials have spent decades successfully educating the public to the dangers of drinking and driving.

But with a national opioid crisis and a growing movement toward legalizing marijuana, McCormick fears that drivers have become too permissive and relaxed about using drugs and getting behind the wheel.

“It should be obvious but if a drug affects your mind, you shouldn’t be driving,” she said. “This should not be happening here.”

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