If you have ever experienced the horror of a truck accident, you know that the modern passenger car is no match for a goliath semi-tractor trailer that can stand 14 feet tall, carry a load the size of a house and outweigh your vehicle by as much as a factor of 100 to 1. Though there are regulations designed to keep drug and alcohol dependent truckers off the road, there has been an increase in drug-related crashes as the opioid crisis spills into the trucking industry.
As a truck accident lawyer, I study trends in the trucking industry that may put the average driver at an unnecessary risk of harm. When the opioid crisis came to light several years ago, it was immediately apparent that this drug scourge was different than any other drug crisis in that it affected the whole gamut of society: rich and poor, old and young, urban, suburban and rural. We knew then that it was only a matter of time before the abuse of opioids and opioid dependency would affect safety on America’s highways.
What makes opioids so dangerous? A common scenario, and the driving force behind the current epidemic, is that a physician will prescribe an excessive number of pain pills for relief of often minor and transient pain. Those pills wind up being abused, either by the patient or the patient’s family members. Because these medications – Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, valium, codeine, tramadol, fentanyl, morphine, Dilaudid, etc. – are highly addictive and expensive, addicts quickly turn to cheap and readily available heroin.
The effect of prescription painkillers and heroin is the same. These drugs cause drowsiness, confusion, sedation, reduced reflexes, blurred vision, clumsiness, and dizziness. If used while operating a vehicle, the driver suffers impairment similar to driving under the influence of alcohol. Despite these risks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Roadside Survey, more than 16% of weekend, night time drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter medications (11% tested positive for illegal drugs). In 2009, 18% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one drug (illegal, prescription and/or over-the-counter).
Federal law prohibits truck drivers from using opioids without a doctor’s permission acknowledging that it is safe to do so. However, some drivers do admit to use of prescription painkillers and federal law does not require testing for them even after an accident. Drug testing is currently required only for marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, angel dust and heroin.
When investigating a trucking accident that results in personal injury or wrongful death, it is important to review the driver’s personnel file, including the medical certificate, and any drug screening performed by the investigating officer. However, a recent study showed that over 60% of the time, truck and bus drivers who are involved in a crash were not drug tested. Therefore, it is also prudent to review the driver’s medical records, including records for treatment of injuries related to the crash, treatment from before the crash and prescription records.
While it is not necessary in an Ohio lawsuit to prove why a truck or bus driver negligently failed to follow applicable traffic rules in causing a traffic crash, when the reason involves drug or alcohol abuse, that fact might give rise to punitive damages and increase the settlement value of the claim.
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