NEW BEDFORD — The opioid crisis has moved behind the wheel in this gritty port city and in other corners of Massachusetts, authorities said. In April, six motorists were found overdosed in traffic here or slumped unconscious in parked cars.
The spike in overdosed drivers has introduced a new dimension to the heroin epidemic, which is killing an average of four people a day in Massachusetts.
“We’re seeing it more,” New Bedford police Sergeant Evan Bielski said in an interview at headquarters. “It’s concerning. You’re putting someone behind the wheel. It’s different, obviously, from an OD at a house.”
The discovery of overdosed drivers is not unique to New Bedford, but recent numbers in the city appear unusually high. Police in several other Massachusetts communities hit hard by opioid abuse reported similar incidents, most involving overdoses in cars parked at popular drug-dealing areas such as shopping plazas.
However, the exceptions are alarming.
In Taunton, a 44-year-old man overdosed April 16 as he drove erratically into St. Joseph Cemetery, according to police. The man was found slumped over the wheel of a Chevrolet Tahoe but was revived with Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. Three needles were found in the side door pocket, authorities said.
It took four doses of Narcan to revive the driver, police said. When asked by authorities whether he had been using drugs, the driver replied, “I really don’t know,” police said.
Two other people in a car were found overdosed at the cemetery in March, according to Jennifer Bastille, a crime analyst for Taunton police.
In New Bedford, the overdoses included an Acushnet man who was found slumped over the wheel of his car on April 21, his foot on the brake as he blocked a city intersection, Bielski said. A police officer responded, and the driver was revived with Narcan.
Two other New Bedford overdoses occurred April 19 . In one, a 26-year-old man struck a parked car with his vehicle. The driver was charged with operating under the influence of drugs after police questioned two passengers and found suspected opioids in the man’s car, Bielski said.
In the second overdose, a New Bedford man was found unconscious inside a locked vehicle.
Another two overdoses happened April 14, according to The Standard-Times of New Bedford. In one, a man was found unconscious at a stop sign. In the other, a man was discovered slumped over the wheel of his vehicle with the engine running.
None of the six motorists in New Bedford died, and no bystanders were injured.
Bielski, who has worked on the city’s narcotics squad, shook his head when asked why more motorists are overdosing. It happened occasionally in the past, he said, but not with this frequency.
Such cases can be difficult to prosecute, particularly without evidence of drugs and without witness statements, Bielski said. Trying to gauge when overdosed drivers have taken opioids also is difficult, he said.
“I don’t know how they’re doing the heroin,” Bielski said. “It varies how quickly it takes effect.’’
Usually, a motorist who overdoses is sitting in a stopped car. One occurred in a Plymouth parking lot in mid-April, Police Chief Michael Botieri said.
“Typically, those addicted to heroin will use the drug wherever they pick it up,” such as in the bathrooms of fast-food restaurants or other easily accessible places, said Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello.
“Potentially, they get into a vehicle right after using. So, it’s a pretty straight line to ODs while driving,” said Campanello, whose city has been hard hit by the opioid crisis.
Bastille outlined a similar pattern in Taunton.
“They’re meeting at a specific parking lot, and the dealer leaves, and they shoot up right in the car,” Bastille said. “They’re getting the drugs and not leaving the parking lot.”