opioid use and driving

Opioid Use and Driving

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As all narcotics affect the brain, body, functions and daily activities of the average human being, the after effects and shock waves are still rolling in from all directions. One affected area is driving. As the use of opioids spread, many are trying to get a grasp on the less obvious areas of collateral damage in the fight against this epidemic. When it comes to mixing opioid use and driving, there are a lot of factors and hidden risks in one of the activities that many people participate in daily. 

What is an Opioid?

It might first help to define what classifies a narcotic as an opioid. An opioid is a compound similar to opium in its addictive properties and physiological effects.

Depending on what type of opioid is being looked at, some are illegal and some are prescription. When prescribed, they are primarily used to address pain and pain management. This is where the danger comes in because opioids are highly addictive, yet once prescribed, the user may see themselves as doing nothing illegal; once the prescription wears out, the user may turn to heroin under the guise of staying pain free and then an addiction sets in surreptitiously. 

Different Types of Opioids

According to the National Institute on Drug abuse, there are several types of opioids, including:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Codeine
  • Morphine

Opioid Use and Driving: A Developing Problem

The problem of driving while on opioids is a difficult one to pin down because of the fact that so many people have prescriptions and are consuming opioids legally. Also, as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage society, the target on what is considered impaired driving is constantly moving; many officers and drug counselors are scrambling to keep up with the evolution of the problem. It is a multi-layered, complex question with few solid answers. But law enforcement still has to protect the driving public at large. 

Initial Beliefs

Before opioid use and abuse became an epidemic, the initial belief was that most opioids were medically prescribed and not recreationally abused. According to the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, the affects of opioids on a driver were mild and far below the impairment threshold of blood alcohol concentration. Drowsiness and sleepiness could occur and use of caution would be wise. But beyond that, driving was not impacted in any major way. 

New Studies; New Thinking

 As the opioid epidemic spread, many law enforcement officers noticed drivers under the influence of opioids during traffic stops or car accidents and had to start re-evaluating standards and procedures in their handling of such cases. 

There is a noted rise in common errors when drivers were found to be using opioids. These include:

  • Failure to remain in lane
  • Failure to yield the right of way
  • Speeding
  • Reduced alertness
  • Reduced lane-tracking ability

Failure to remain in the lane is the most recurring problem, as it affects more than 55 percent of opioid users behind the wheel. On a more pointed, serious note: use of prescription opioids more than doubles the risk of fatal 2-car crash initiation.

Opioid Use and Truck Drivers

Since CDL and trucks are a mainstay of the driving industry, law enforcement began to notice an uptick in the connection between truck driving infractions and opioid use. Before the epidemic, there was a failure to test properly for opioids in the truck driver’s bloodstream in favor of more obvious choices like alcohol or even simply a lack of sleep. But once the studies caught up, the results were not surprising. 

According to the American Addiction Centers, the long hours and inevitable fatigue that accompanies the truck driver’s lifestyle is a prime place for an opioid addiction to set in. Many drivers suffer from old injuries but still need to work. To deal with this chronic pain, many drivers turn to prescription opioids. Many drivers have longer routes, which leads to prolonged dosage and increases their tolerance for the opioids. The drivers often increase the dosage until an eventual addiction sets in.The US Department of Transportation (DOT) now requires any CDL driver to be drug tested after any crash involving a human fatality. Previously, the mandatory tests included alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. But as of January 2018, the new protocol includes mandatory testing for the presence of any opioids in the system. 


Time is the main obstacle to finding clear-cut numbers about opioid use and its affect on driving. There is thirty years of research behind statistics and facts about alcohol and driving violations. But the opioid epidemic is fairly new. And, with states around the country (California and Colorado, for example) continuing to legalize marijuana, traffic officers are having a hard time keeping up because many drivers may be influenced by more than one type of substance and they may all be legally bought or prescribed. Drug tests vary from state to state, and what worked to monitor alcohol levels won’t work for opioids. 

In any event, law enforcement agencies around the country are scrambling to find both the frequency and the severity of driving infractions while under the influence of opioids. If you or anyone you know is fighting an opioid addiction, don’t hesitate to contact Ocean Hills Recovery, where we have the people and the resources to put you on a better, cleaner path. 

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