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Researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine will expand a statewide driving safety program to prevent motorists from getting behind the wheel when under the influence of alcohol, cannabis and prescription drugs, it was announced Monday.

With funding from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the UCSD Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety program provides education and resources intended to teach the public about the dangers of driving while drunk or drugged.

In addition to alcohol, driving under the influence of cannabis and certain prescription or over-the-counter medications has rapidly become a serious traffic safety issue in the United States, especially during the global COVID-19 pandemic, according to UCSD researchers.

An NHTSA study conducted at five hospital trauma centers between March and July found that nearly two-thirds of seriously or fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, cannabis or opioids. The number of motorists who tested positive for opioids or cannabis dramatically increased after mid-March compared to the previous six months.

“Stress, anxiety and depression are serious mental health concerns during the pandemic, and some are turning to alcohol, drugs and opioids to manage their emotions and then getting behind the wheel,” said Dr. Linda Hill, program director of TREDS and a professor of family medicine at the UCSD Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity.

“Collisions due to driving under the influence are 100% preventable,” she said. “Our behavior profoundly influences our crash risk. We can reduce this risk by providing intervention strategies.”

TREDS develops traffic safety education programs and conducts workshops to prepare law enforcement and health professionals to teach classes to the public.

The expanding program will now include delivery of virtual workshops on a monthly basis with the goal of training professionals in every county in California and linking groups with professionals in their communities who have received training to deliver the prevention programs.

“This is a major expansion from previous years,” Hill said. “The workshops will feature curricula that address the topics of distracted driving, pedestrian safety, older road user safety and driving under the influence of alcohol, cannabis and medications.”

Hill reminds the public that the potency of cannabis has increased dramatically in recent years and affects each person differently. The peak effect for smoking THC is about 10 minutes after inhaling and can last four to eight hours. For edibles, the peak effect may occur up to two hours after ingesting and may last 10 hours or longer.

“Impairing effects are based on the strength of THC, personal tolerance and mode of use,” Hill said. “It is critical that we continue to collaborate with those on the frontlines of road safety and the health professionals who see the tragic results of impaired driving in our emergency room settings, so we can have a unified message to our community to drive safely and sober, alcohol and drug free.”

-City News Service