What will marijuana legalization mean for road safety?



Most people know that driving under the influence of alcohol or texting while behind the wheel are dangerous behaviors that can result in serious accidents and criminal punishments. And yet, that doesn't stop people from doing it. In 2017, one person died every 48 minutes in the U.S. as a result of drunk driving crashes, while distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015. Considering that approximately 660,000 drivers use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, it's shocking that there aren't more deaths as a result. And even when these accidents don't end in fatalities, they can still cause an immense amount of harm to the civilians involved.

It should surprise no one that the three most common causes of car accidents in the U.S. are drunk driving, distracted driving, and speeding. DUI charges typically encompass the use of illicit drugs, as well as alcohol. That typically means that if you smoke marijuana, choose to drive, and get pulled over, you can be arrested and charged with operating a vehicle under the influence. And for the 64% of Americans who own an iPhone — and for the others who own and use other electronic devices — it's important to note that most local laws are starting to punish those who choose to text and drive. But the rules concerning driving while high might not be as clear cut as they once were, thanks to the legalization of recreational marijuana in certain states.

In a 2018 study conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation, it was revealed that the number of car crash fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for cannabis has nearly doubled since the state legalized its recreational use in 2014. Curiously, however, the number of cannabis-related DUIs actually dropped by 33% from 2016 to 2017, according to figures from the Colorado State Patrol. While the study does not definitively say legalization was the main contributor in the increased number of deaths, other research may point to the fact that states that have legalized cannabis also have shown increases in traffic accidents.


A point that's confusing for both law enforcement and civilians alike is that there may not be definitive rules on whether motorists are considered too high to drive. While drunk driving laws state that a motorist's blood alcohol content cannot meet or exceed 0.08 without being charged with a DUI, some states that have passed recreational marijuana laws don't currently have any numbers on the books that could draw the line. Michigan is one of those states, which has caused problems for prosecutors and leaves the interpretation of the law up to chance. In a lot of cases, that means that the crimes a driver could face could actually depend on where they are pulled over. Currently, legislators say that there's a zero tolerance policy, but that could change in the near future.

Even more astonishing than not having rules that state "how high is too high" is the fact that the general public seems to think that the limit does not exist. One recent study found that some drivers believe that cannabis will sober them up after a night of drinking or that getting high will actually improve their response time. In Washington state, one study found that motorists were more likely to test positive for marijuana after retail cannabis sales began than before the legalization, due in large part to an increase of daytime drivers who partake in marijuana use. What's worse, many drivers who participated in that study were found to drive a car under the influence of marijuana with children in the vehicle. Yet another survey found that 52.4% of participants felt that driving under the influence of cannabis was safe, with over half of those surveyed admitting that they had driven within an hour of using cannabis.

Unfortunately, the idea that cannabis use is somehow safer than alcohol consumption for motorists has been shown to be a fallacy. Whether the misconception can be attributed to mere misinformation or personal justification, awareness of the potential dangers of driving while high will need to increase as legalized use becomes more widespread. The link between marijuana and car accidents is admittedly not as clear as the one between alcohol and crashes, which has prompted many officials to call for more definitive legislation and tools that can more accurately analyze marijuana use. But until that time, it will probably be up to the states to take action and keep all motorists safe.

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