KINGSTON, R.I. — Nov. 3, 2021 — Driving under the influence of illicit drugs is a major problem on the roadways, as about 12.6 million people over the age of 16 engage in the behavior each year. Especially when opioids are involved, the risk of overdose behind the wheel is great, putting drivers and passengers at risk of serious injury and death.
A University of Rhode Island College of Nursing study aims to better understand the problem, with the goal of creating prevention measures. Assistant Professor Dahianna Lopez is working with the Providence Police and Fire Departments to investigate the extent to which people are overdosing in vehicles in Providence, where in the city they are most frequently overdosing, and the burden of injuries associated with in-car overdose.
“The true burden of overdose is the injuries collectively, but they are not always attributed to the overdose in the first place,” Lopez said, noting people sometimes drive into Providence to get drugs, use them, then drive home under the influence, potentially endangering others. “We could be underestimating the burden of the injuries when we only count the overdose, but we don’t count the injuries to others caused by the overdose.”
Funded by a $40,000 grant from the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, “Examining the Opioid Epidemic through First-Responders” aims to better understand the total cost of opioid use in cars and suggest ways to mitigate the damage. The study will look at raw numbers of overdoses and injuries from medical data, as well as reports from police officers and firefighters who respond to the scenes.
“The rate of crashes has been increasing, but we don’t know much about the use of drugs in motor vehicles,” Lopez said. “How do we get people to not overdose, and to not drive impaired? The goal is to take a look at the data and see what’s the extent of the problem, and then come up with interventions. We want to get people help, and also get them off the road.”
Those interventions could include changing laws like one that allows a designated driver to be charged with possession of illicit drugs even if only a passenger is found with them, discouraging designated driving. A mediator could be assigned to assist a person with addiction issues through the legal process, so he or she get the services they need, instead of just a jail cell. Lopez also suggested examining “hot spots” in the city where people tend to use drugs in the car, possibly organizing outreach campaigns to offer services to people who want to be in recovery.
“With transportation, the way to prevent crashes has been pushing police officers to enforce, enforce, enforce,” Lopez said. “While it could be beneficial to crash prevention, we don’t know that that’s the case. If someone gets charged, they might go to jail, but do they get any services beyond that?”
Lopez said it is more effective to look at the source of the problem — addiction, which can begin with a prescription, then often advance to a dependency, leading patients to buy illicit narcotics on the black market. That can present a host of new dangers, from the risk of becoming a victim of crime, to obtaining a drug laced with fentanyl, a lethal synthetic opioid.
After developing interventions, Lopez plans to expand the study to a larger area and ultimately hopes to advise the federal government.