Exclusive: U.S. traffic deaths fell after coronavirus lockdown, but drivers got riskier

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. traffic deaths fell during the coronavirus lockdowns but drivers engaged in riskier behavior as the fatality rate spiked to its highest level in 15 years, a government report set to be released Thursday will show.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found the fatality rate jumped to 1.42 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the three months ending June 30, the highest since 2005.

At the same time, overall traffic deaths fell by 3.3% to 8,870 while U.S. driving fell by about 26%, or 302 fewer over the same period in 2019, according to the report reviewed by Reuters.

NHTSA’s study showed “drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

By contrast, the fatality rate for 2019 was just 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles, the lowest rate since 2014 as traffic deaths fell by 2% to 36,096.

Traffic data showed average speeds increased and extreme speeding became more common. Data from some states suggested that fewer people were wearing seat belts during the lockdown.

“In short, the stay-at-home orders may have led the population of drivers during the height of the health crisis to have been smaller but more willing to take risks,” NHTSA found.

NHTSA also noted that in the wake of the outbreak enforcement of some traffic laws was reduced. “It is possible that drivers’ perception that they may be caught breaking a law was reduced,” the report found.

NHTSA also said that since coronavirus risks are higher for older Americans, that could have minimized driving by more risk-averse drivers.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Dayton gunman had cocaine, Xanax, alcohol in his system during attack

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a memorial for those killed in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – The gunman who killed nine people outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, had cocaine, Xanax and alcohol in his system at the time of the shooting rampage, the county coroner said on Thursday.

Dayton police announced the findings at a press conference and on Twitter and said that two victims of the massacre were struck by gunfire from law enforcement officers responding to the scene.

“While it weighs heavily on us that our response caused harm to these victims, we are comforted that none of our rounds caused the death of any of these innocent people,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said on Twitter.

Dr. Kent Harshbarger, Montgomery County coroner, said at the news conference that an autopsy conducted on the body of 24-year-old Connor Betts found the drugs and medication in his system.

It was not clear how much of each drug was present at the time of the attack.

The Aug. 4 massacre, which ended when police shot and killed the gunman, was one of three mass shootings over three weeks that stunned Americans and stoked a long-running debate over gun rights.

Earlier this week a friend of Betts, 24-year-old Ethan Kollie, was charged in federal court with lying his drug use on a form he filled out to buy a gun and with possession of a firearm by an unlawful user of a controlled substance.

In announcing the charges, prosecutors said Kollie admitted that he had purchased body armor, an accessory for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a 100-round double drum magazine that Betts used during the shooting.

Kollie kept the items at his apartment in the Dayton suburb of Kettering to conceal them from Betts’ parents, according to court papers. Kollie is not accused with helping plan or carry out the attack.

Betts opened fire outside a bar in the Oregon District of Dayton at 1 a.m. on Aug. 4. The shooting ended rapidly when police moved in and shot Betts dead. Those killed included Betts’ 22-year-old sister, Megan.

The FBI said last week that Betts had a history of violent obsessions and had mused about committing mass murder before his rampage in Dayton’s historic downtown.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Utah enacts lowest U.S. drunken-driving limit

FILE PHOTO: Utah Governor Gary Herbert talks about the state's economic development in Salt Lake City, Utah January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

By Tom James

(Reuters) – Utah Governor Gary Herbert on Thursday signed a law setting the blood alcohol limit for drunken driving at 0.05, the lowest threshold in the United States, over strong objections from the restaurant and beverage industry.

The proposal lowers the predominantly Mormon state’s blood-alcohol limit from 0.08, currently the standard across all U.S. states, to 0.05 as of Dec. 31, 2018, to try to improve road safety in the state.

“I signed (the bill) into law to help strengthen Utah’s impaired driving laws and to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths on our roads,” Herbert said in a statement Thursday.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said her organization and other industry groups opposed the measure and see it as likely to hurt the hospitality industry in the state.

“It will be punishing those people who drink responsibly, and go out and enjoy an evening,” Sine said.

The American Beverage Institute, a lobbying group, which had previously taken out ads advocating against the measure in newspapers in the state, earlier condemned Herbert’s plan to sign the bill.

Herbert also said he would call a special legislative session to address the “unintended and collateral consequences” of the law, and to help “modify and improve it.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has advocated for a national 0.05 limit, and its representatives testified twice in support of the Utah bill before the legislature, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The board said studies show that impairment starts after one drink, even at blood-alcohol levels as low as 0.04, the limit for commercial truck drivers nationwide.

(Reporting by Tom James in Seattle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Drinking, drug use largely down among U.S. teens in 2016

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The use of alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications and illicit substances declined among U.S. teens again in 2016, continuing a long-term trend, according to a study released on Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health.

But the research found that high school seniors were still using cannabis at nearly the same levels as in 2015, with 22.5 percent saying that had smoked or ingested the drug at least once within the past month and 6 percent reporting daily use.

“Clearly our public health prevention efforts, as well as policy changes to reduce availability, are working to reduce teen drug use, especially among eighth graders,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement accompanying the study results.

“However, when 6 percent of high school seniors are using marijuana daily, and new synthetics are continually flooding the illegal marketplace, we cannot be complacent,” Volkow said.

The annual survey, part of a series called Monitoring the Future which has tracked drug, alcohol and tobacco use among teens since 1975, also found that during 2016 there was a higher use of pot among 12th graders in states with medical marijuana laws.

According to the study, marijuana and e-cigarettes are more popular among teens than regular tobacco, with a large drop in the use of tobacco cigarettes among 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

In 2016, 1.8 percent of high school seniors smoked half a pack or more of tobacco cigarettes per day, compared with 10.7 percent in 1991.

The use of alcohol has seen similar declines, according to the research, with 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting this year that they had been drunk at least once, down from a peak of 53.2 percent in 2001.

The analysis found that the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana by teens was at its lowest levels since tracking began.

The study, which is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, surveyed 45,473 students from 372 public and private schools.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Truck Crashes Through Side of Church

The New Boston First Church of the Nazarene could be without a building for up to a year after a drunk driver crashed his truck through a wall.

“I was notified about this about four o’clock this morning,” Pastor Mike Percell told reporters. “We’re waiting on the state to come with structural engineers and insurance companies adjusters to decide what to do. Right now the (New Boston) Fire Department has condemned the sanctuary so we’re moving next door to the (New Boston) Community Building for our services starting Sunday. The rest of the building is intact – no problems.”

The Portsmouth-Daily Times said the accident happened around 3:15 a.m. Friday.

The driver, 21-year-old Samuel Gibson, reportedly tested .13 for blood alcohol level, well above the point for Operating a Vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  The truck was reportedly traveling so fast that it went airborne before striking the church and landed on its roof.

Gibson and his passenger suffered only minor injuries and were treated and released from a local hospital.

Pastor Percell said the damage inside is more significant than outside because the walls and roof are now unstable.

Pot Related Car Accidents Up 300 Percent

A new research study from Columbia University shows that fatal car accidents involving marijuana have tripled in the last ten years.

One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Guohua Li, said that currently one in nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana.

“If this trend continues, in five or six years non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substance involved in deaths related to impaired driving,” Dr. Li said.

The study comes on the heels of states such as Colorado legalizing marijuana for use by the public.  Alcohol related traffic fatalities held steady at 40 percent throughout the decade but drug related deaths climbed from 16 percent in 1999 to 28 percent in 2010.  The scientists fear more legalization could continue to drive up the rate of drug related crashes.

“If a driver is under the influence of alcohol, their risk of a fatal crash is 13 times higher than the risk of the driver who is not under the influence of alcohol,” Li told Breitbart. “But if the driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana, their risk increases to 24 times that of a sober person.”

CDC Report Says 38 Million Americans Drink Too Much Alcohol

The Centers for Disease Control has released a report showing that over 38 million Americans drink too much alcohol on a regular basis.

The report says that most Americans who fall into the category of too much alcohol consumption are not actually alcoholics. They classify the people as “problem drinkers” who will binge drink or drink on specific days of the week.

The CDC also cited healthcare providers as providing poor information regarding the impact that alcohol can have on a person’s health and well being over time. Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to enhance or cause liver disease, infections and cancer risks.

The CDC recommends anyone who consumes alcohol have an “honest chat” with their doctors regarding the impact of alcohol to their health.