A recent study out of Columbia University has raised some serious doubts about the safety of marijuana use while driving. Though everyone has long understood the dangers of drinking and driving, researchers say that in the recent push to legalize the possession of marijuana there has been little discussion of how that legalization might impact traffic fatality rates.
According to the Columbia study, the number of fatal car accidents involving marijuana has tripled in just the last 10 years. One of the lead authors of the study said that right now, about one in nine drivers involved in a deadly car accident tests positive for marijuana use. Should the same trajectory of marijuana use continue, experts believe that in five years non-alcoholic substances will become the leading cause of DUI related driving accidents.
Researchers say that they tackled the issue by comparing accident data from six states that commonly perform drug tests on those involved in deadly accidents. Out of more than 23,000 drivers, the numbers show that about 40 percent of fatal accidents involved alcohol. This number has stayed relatively consistent over the years, fluctuating only slightly.
While the alcohol use rate has hovered at a nearly constant level, the percent of fatal accidents involving drugs has jumped dramatically, rising from 16 percent in 1999 to more than 28 percent in 2010. Out of this larger category of drugs, marijuana by itself contributed to only four percent of fatal car accidents in 1999 and now is responsible for around 12 percent.
Experts fear that as societal attitudes towards marijuana continue to shift, it will only be a matter of time until other states allow for the legalization of pot. The worry is that as legalization spreads across the country there may also be a similar rise in the number of deadly car accidents.
The reason that marijuana can be so dangerous is that it impacts a driver in much the same way that booze does. Marijuana slows reaction time, increases the chance of distraction, impairs vision and judgment and also makes a driver more likely to engage in risky behavior behind the wheel. Studies have shown that marijuana mixed with alcohol can magnify the dangers of impaired driving. While drivers under the influence of alcohol are 13 times more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident than sober drivers, those who have consumed both alcohol and pot are 24 times more likely to be in a deadly wreck.
Though these numbers are understandably worrying, experts point out that there are problems with simply banning marijuana use behind the wheel. For one thing, most tests for marijuana can detect it in the blood up to a week after use; meaning a positive test result only confirms drug use, not necessarily drug impairment. Additionally, there are not yet very many easy ways of detecting marijuana use in drivers. While alcohol is detected and measured through Breathalyzer tests, no similar marijuana identification tool has been widely adopted. It’s clear that moving forward, legislators will have to spend some serious time and energy fleshing out how to handle the issue of marijuana impaired driving as legalization movements continue to gather momentum.
Source: “Fatal Car Crashes Involving Pot Use Have Tripled in U.S., Study Finds,” by Dennis Thompson, published at WebMD.com.