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It’s common for a person intoxicated by drugs or alcohol to be referred to as “loaded.”

That terminology isn’t far from the truth when we consider drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When an individual drives a vehicle of several tons while under the influence, he or she becomes a loaded weapon.

In 2014, Alcohol-impaired driving was responsible for about one-third of traffic deaths while over one-fifth of fatal crashes in 2015 involved drugged drivers. It’s clear that America’s roadways become deadly when individuals risk their own safety and the safety of others to drive while under the influence.

To better understand the prevalence of intoxicated driving, we reviewed data from NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) which documents traffic casualties from 1994-2015. Our investigation uncovered the locations of America’s deadliest roadways.

Drunk Drivers Turn Tricky Roads Deadly

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The above graphic shows the states with the highest and lowest yearly rates of drunk driving fatalities per 100k residents. Wyoming had the most alcohol-related driving fatalities — 7.7 per 100,000 residents, followed by Montana at 7.0, and North Dakota at 5.7.

According to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts, it was no coincidence that Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota topped the list for the highest rates of drunk driving fatalities. These areas shared some of the same tricky characteristics that made roadway fatalities likely including “large networks of rural roads,” “low rates of seatbelt use,” and higher incidence of speeding than on city roads. Head-on collisions were more common in these rural areas, since opposing traffic was rarely separated by barriers such as guardrails. In short, roadways that were already tricky to navigate turned deadly when drunk drivers arrived on the scene.

Rural Blood Alcohol Levels Pass Deadly Limit

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To better understand the issue of drunk driving in rural areas, we took a look at BAC levels in drunk driving-related accidents in rural areas compared to more urban settings. The results showed that drunk driving accidents in rural areas are more likely to involve drivers with higher levels of intoxication.

For example, the average Wyoming resident involved in an alcohol-related automobile fatality registered a BAC level of 0.18 – that’s over twice the state’s legal limit of 0.08.

Driving is often a necessity in rural regions where homes, restaurants, bars and other social spots are separated by stretches of land. Rural settings often lack the lack the structure of cities (which often include public transportation, taxi services, and ride-share options), so the temptation to drive home from a bar buzzed or drunk presents a strong, albeit a fatal, temptation in these locations.

Drug-Loaded Drivers Engage in Deadly Roulette

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While many have heard of the dangers associated with drunk driving, we tend to be less focused on people who engage in drugged driving, but these drivers should earn our attention.

According to federal data shared with USA Today, “the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tracked an upswing in the percentage of drivers testing positive for illegal drugs and prescription medications.”

As the graphic above demonstrates, West Virginia had the highest rate of drugged driving fatalities, totaling 2.3 per 100,000 residents.  Wyoming and Vermont followed closely behind with 1.76 and 1.63 deaths per 100,000 residents respectively.

In rural areas of West Virginia the opioid epidemic has hit especially hard which may be a contributing factor to roadway deaths. In Cabell County, West Virginia, home to less than 100,000 people, there have been at least 440 overdoses this year, including 26 fatalities. Some local officials blame the rising drug use on weak economy and people’s inability to cope with the state’s crippled coal industry.

Painkiller Abuse Kills On Roads

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Opioid addiction has risen to epidemic-level status in areas outside of rural West Virginia as well — it’s effects are visible across the entire country. In some states, the increases have resulted in dangers on the road. Arkansas, Rhode Island and Maryland all saw a marked increase in drug-related traffic incidents between 2014 and 2015.

Arkansas, which saw the greatest increase of drugged drivers overall, was home to two counties with a rate of over 40 fatalities per 100,000 residents. Montgomery and Poinsett Counties reported 43.36 and 41.42, respectively.

Rhode Island also saw a dramatic increase in drug-related traffic deaths from 2014 to 2015; however, their rates were much lower than Arkansas or Maryland. Indeed, the majority of Rhode Island reports low rates of drug-related traffic incidents; however, one outlier — Washington County — stands out with higher rates of drug-related traffic incidents. Washington County is home to three colleges and universities where student drug use may be a contributing factor to the uptick in drug-related accidents. When we look at the contributing age group, 16 to 24 year olds (college-aged students) make up more than half of the drug-related traffic fatalities in the state.

Across all three states, men were more likely than women to drive under the influence of illicit substances. The largest gender disparity in drugged driving was seen in Rhode Island, where men were to blame for over 95 percent of drugged driving deaths.

Intoxicated Drivers Spread Across States

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Despite continued public service announcements and efforts from law enforcement to curb drunk driving rates, some states saw dramatic year-over-year increases in drunk driving accidents from 2014 to 2015. Vermont led with an increase of over 116 percent in drunk driving accidents from 2014 to 2015. This increase surpassed the number two placeholder Oregon and number three placeholder Maine by almost 50 percent.

Among the top three states with the largest year-over-year drunk driving incidents, fatalities at the county level were most evident in Oregon, where Sherman County registered nearly 58 drunk-driver deaths per 100,000 residents. A 2013 report found that Sherman County also contributed the highest incarceration rates in the state — nearly double the state average. Local officials cited travelers passing through Interstate 84 and U.S. 97 as the key contributors to the incarceration rates — this scenario may be linked to Sherman County’s drunk driving numbers as well.

The most troubled age group was drivers 25 to 34 years old, who were responsible for the majority of alcohol-related wrecks in all states except Oregon. Drivers in this age group accounted for 36 percent of drunk driving fatalities in Vermont and approximately 34 percent of driving fatalities in Maine. According to the CDC, this group is known to be at a particularly high risk for drunk driving.

 

Loaded Drivers Create County Death Pockets

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While a state-level look at drug and alcohol-related traffic incidents delivers a big-picture view of driving patterns in America, we wanted to understand which counties from any state were contributing the highest rates of drug-related driving fatalities.

Montana had counties that made it to the top five of each substance-related fatality category: stimulants, cannabinoids (marijuana), narcotics, and depressants. Valley County, Montana, with an estimated population of 7,659, experienced the highest rates in the country for drug-related accidents in three different categories. Valley County illustrates how small pockets of America’s roadways can be especially dangerous to drive.

Consistent with our other findings, many of these locations were not areas renowned for their parties; rather, they were places like Esmeralda County, Nevada. With a population of only 829, Esmerelda had an impressive showing in our rankings — they topped several lists including the highest concentration of driving fatalities involving stimulants, cannabinoids and narcotics.

Cannabis Dangerous for Roads

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A top contributor to drug-related traffic accidents across counties was marijuana. While often considered as benign or harmless as cigarettes, marijuana can pose a significant threat to the safety of drivers and those with whom they share the road. Across the United States, our map shows a high concentration of orange, indicating marijuana is a serious threat on the road.

One marijuana-related wreck was the tragic collision involving David Aggio in Bakersfield, California. Aggio was killed on impact when a driver high on marijuana struck his vehicle while traveling at 80 miles per hour.

Drivers on Marijuana Lead in Wrecks

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It’s clear that driving under the influence of any substance can be a threat to others on the road; however, marijuana seems to pose an underestimated risk. This graphic shows the drugs responsible for the highest incidence of drug-related car deaths– cannabinoids were the most likely to cause a fatal wreck. Marijuana was involved in 26.8 percent of drugged driving fatalities since 1994, making the drug was nearly twice as dangerous as narcotics.

Stimulants, such as amphetamines, were the second most likely drug to be involved in a drug-related car death, followed by “other drugs” and depressants. Numbers for any of the drug-related traffic deaths may be higher, given that nearly four percent of drugs involved in accidents are classified as “unknown.”

Loaded Drivers are Loaded Weapons.

The words “recreational” and “casual” do not apply when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Regardless of the substance, driving after using is always a risk and a threat to the safety of others.

Although driving becomes second-nature for many, driving requires top-notch mental reasoning, maneuvering, and coordination. One lax or improper response from a drugged or drunk brain can result in a tragedy.

Often, driving under the influence can be connected to an underlying issue of dependence or frequent over-consumption. At Alcoholic.org, we provide concise, straightforward information for those impacted by alcohol abuse and addiction issues so they may understand their own habits or those of a loved one and find the resources they need to seek help. Explore our site to learn more.

Methodology

All data regarding deaths related to drugs and alcohol came from http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov. State populations were collected from the U.S. Census from 1994 to 2015 to compare the average number of drug and alcohol fatalities per 100,000 residents. County population numbers were based on 2013 Census data.

Sources

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