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UMass Chan researchers contribute to study of drug prevalence among injured road users

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study shows 56 percent of seriously or fatally injured roadway users tested positive for one or more drugs

By Pat Sargent

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

January 12, 2023
Of the seriously or fatally injured roadway users included in the study’s toxicology panel, nearly 56 percent tested positive for one or more drugs, including alcohol and cannabinoids.

Kavita Babu, MD, professor of emergency medicine at UMass Chan Medical School and chief of medical toxicology at UMass Memorial Medical Center, co-authored a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report about a study of drug prevalence among drivers and other road users, based on toxicological analyses of blood specimens from those who were seriously or fatally injured in motor vehicle crashes. 

Data for the study was collected from more than 7,200 roadway users, including vehicle drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, at seven trauma centers across the United States, including the Level One Trauma Center at UMass Memorial Medical Center, for 18 months beginning in late January 2020. Of the seriously or fatally injured roadway users included in the study’s toxicology panel, nearly 56 percent tested positive for one or more drugs, the most common being cannabinoids (25.1 percent) and alcohol (23.1 percent). In comparison to earlier reports by the NHTSA, this is an increase over pre-pandemic numbers.

“This study gave us an opportunity to get a broader snapshot in terms of what people who are seriously injured had been exposed to,” said Dr. Babu. “It appears the prevalence of impaired driving went up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think initially, in the early phases of the pandemic and initial periods of isolation, we really saw this uptick and I’m not confident yet that we've seen that plateau or drop back.”

Babu said conducting the study during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult. She credits Jeffrey Lai, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine and one of the study’s authors, to getting the research off the ground at UMass Chan.

“Dr. Lai and his team really displayed a lot of agility for us to be able to participate in this study during the pandemic and I think it’s really created some long-lasting relationships with NHTSA and fueled our interest in this work,” said Babu.

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