The Unexpected Rise in Car Crash Deaths After Marijuana Legalization

There is an increase in car crashes and deaths in states that have legalized recreational marijuana, according to a new study.

Vice president of research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Charles Farmer, lead researcher said- “Marijuana, like alcohol and just about every other drug, changes how you feel and how you behave. That’s the purpose of a drug. And that changes how you drive. We all need to realize that driving after using marijuana is a bad idea”.

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When looking at car crashes, the study found that crashes with injuries increased by 6% after legalization, while those resulting in death increased by 4%. States that had not legalized the drug, on the other hand, showed no change in injury and death rates.

Research in the past has confirmed these results, Farmer said. “It’s becoming more and more clear that the legalization of marijuana doesn’t come without cost. But marijuana legalization is still a novelty, and there’s hope that these early trends can be turned around,”.

Farmer feels that there are ways to help avoid the pitfalls of driving while high. “Maybe, with the right education and enforcement strategies, states that are either considering or in the process of legalization can avoid the increase in crashes,” he said.

For the study, Farmer and his colleagues analyzed five states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada) that legalized recreational marijuana for those aged 21 and over and compared them with the remaining states (Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) that did not legalize pot.

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In the years following legalization, but before retail pot sales started, the number of car crashes with injuries rose nearly 7%. Once sales started, the number of crashes with injuries dropped slightly (1%) but the number of fatal crashes increased about 2%.

Some drivers, who have been under the influence of marijuana, tend to drive more slowly. If there is a collision, the likelihood of a life-threatening outcome is lower for them, according to Farmer.

Previously, Farmer’s team has studied the impact of marijuana use on things like reflexes, attention, and hand-eye coordination, which makes it easier to crash while driving.

Farmer believes marijuana legalization is not the only reason for the rise in collisions, and the study cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Unlike alcohol testing, there are no clear objective measurements for whether or not a person is under the influence of marijuana, so it’s not possible to tell whether marijuana plays a role in car crashes.

The state-by-state differences in crash rates are as follows: Colorado experienced the biggest jump (18%) and California recorded the smallest (6%) following legalization and retail sales. Nevada’s rate decreased (7%). In terms of fatality crashes, increases occurred in Colorado (1%) and Oregon (4%), while declines were observed in Washington (2%), California (8%) and Nevada (10%).

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MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) president Alex Otte said, “We know that driving impaired by any drug, alcohol, marijuana or otherwise, is 100% preventable. It’s not an accident. It’s not a mistake. It’s a choice.”

“We hear all the time in pop culture things like, ‘Maybe I’m a better driver when I’m high’,” Otte said. “I think people just aren’t aware, as much as they are with alcohol, that there is such a risk associated with driving under the influence of marijuana or other drugs, and I think a lot of it comes down to awareness.”

What is needed is to alter the culture to provide an understanding that it is unsafe to drive after using marijuana, she stated.

“We know that roadside tests and things like that to help an officer determine if that person is safe to drive are so important and so needed,” she said.

In the future, Otte hopes there will be methods to assess how marijuana affects one’s driving abilities, just like there are for alcohol.

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Driving while impaired by any drug is dangerous for you and for everyone else on the road, Otte said. “Even one person injured or killed is one too many,” she said. “I want people to know that this is a choice and they have the option to make the right choice and not to drive when high.”

The report was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs on July 19.

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