AAA report shows drugged driving deaths are on the rise in NJ

Driving under the influence of drugs has increased significantly over the last decade in New Jersey.

In 2015 and 2016, more drivers killed tested positive for drugs than alcohol. That hasn’t happened since 2007, according to a AAA Northeast report.

“In New Jersey in 2016, 103 fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs, 92 for alcohol,” said AAA Northeast spokesperson Robert Sinclair Jr.

He says the increase is due to several factors, including a spike in opioid use and more states legalizing marijuana.

“That was a surprising thing — there are people who are testing positive for opioids but they pale in comparison to the number that are testing positive for marijuana,” said Sinclair. “There are 30 states now that have legalized medical use of marijuana and nine states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana. And we think maybe that has led to a de-stigmatization of the drug.”

In 2016, AAA found 39 percent of drivers killed in New Jersey car crashes tested positive for drugs, 19 percent for cannabinoids, and 12 percent for narcotics.

That’s up from 2007, when 15 percent of drivers killed in car crashes tested positive for drugs, 6 percent for cannabinoids and 3 percent for narcotics.

“So the problem of people using drugs and getting behind the wheel and getting killed is growing and that’s with the drug not legal here,” said Sinclair.

New Jersey lawmakers are moving towards legalizing recreational marijuana. Senate President Steve Sweeney says a bill could be approved in the legislature by the end of next month.

“Washington State legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012, we looked at the number of drivers who were killed who had recently used marijuana for the years 2013 to 2014,” Sinclair explained, “There was a doubling in the number of those who were killed under the influence or had used marijuana compared to the years before.”

But Sinclair says there is a limitation to the study – drivers could have marijuana in their system but not be impaired.

“With cannabis it’s tough because it’s not real time. This basically is a report, we’ve seen data like this where you don’t see a causal link,” said marijuana legalization advocate Bill Caruso.

Still, he agrees education is key because nobody should get behind the wheel under the influence.

“I don’t think there is any circumstances where people that are using cannabis should be driving. Similarly, if people are on codeine for a cough or on opioids for pain, or taking Nyquil or Benadryl. And certainly drinking over the limit. This is education, but we’ve had this problem with texting while driving and others and we don’t take away the cell phones — we educate and then enforce the law,” said Caruso.

In 2013, the AAA Traffic Safety Culture Index shows 76 percent of those surveyed considered it completely unacceptable to drive within an hour of using marijuana. In, 2017, that fell to 66 percent.

Sinclair recommends hiring more drug recognition experts among law enforcement and to put a breathalyzer-type roadside test in place to indicate marijuana usage.