Capt. Obvious: Smoking Pot While Driving Raises Fatalities

There have been tons of studies over the last few years as marijuana becomes legalized in more states. The latest comes from Washington state where the AAA Foundation has public health officials worried. THC-positive drivers in fatality crashes have hit 18% since marijuana was legalized there. That is more than double the rate before legalization was passed. The data collected was based on state accident investigation conclusions.

State health officials have feared the general opinion of drivers is that it’s OK to drive while high. We can’t say that is a belief held by most drivers, but that is what the fear is. The other question is where these fatalities occurred was the person responsible high or a statistic of total casualties involved?

Smoking pot raises accidents in a vacuum, but are those stats legit?

“The problem here is that people don’t think they’re going to get caught,” Jake Nelson told USA Today. He’s the AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “What we found is that drivers are more likely to use (marijuana) and get behind the wheel after the law passed.” Without seeming defensive how did they find this information? Is it based on bias or actual surveys? Without knowing we’ll proceed.

Before the legalization of marijuana in 2012, 56 drivers per year were found to test positive for THC after being in a fatal accident. The average was taken between 2007-2011. From 2012-on the state of Washington statistics found that this figure rose to 130 drivers. The federal government does not release statistics for fatal accidents involving marijuana if it even compiles them.

Smoking pot while driving is not as worse as this

A toy car lies among flowers and candles left by mourners at the site of a pedestrian accident
A toy car lies among flowers left by mourners at the site of an accident | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

But before you curse the scourge of wacky weed there is a problem far worse and that is alcohol. The feds do compile statistics on alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. Those accounted for almost 30% of all traffic fatalities in the US in 2018. It gets worse. Those same statistics show that drunk drivers are four times more likely to drive than those stoned on marijuana. 

One thing to keep in mind is that you know when someone is drunk, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is high on pot. The effects, however, are similar. Delayed reaction times and not able to judge speed are just some effects that both alcohol and marijuana share. Spatial awareness becomes impaired, also. 

“Because somebody who is high on marijuana isn’t stumbling or slurring their speech because they don’t fit our mental models of what an impaired driver looks like, we tend to think they are less impaired or not impaired at all even if they are,” said Nelson. 

Has the increased scrutiny and record of pot and driving been inflated?

Many feel that increased enforcement has inflated the numbers. Some compare it to the “fishing analogy.” If one fishes with one rod yesterday, then uses three rods and a fish finder today, you should catch more fish today because you’re trying harder to find and catch them. 

Another question is if fatal crashes have risen in general, increasing the overall numbers or if the overall percentage has remained relatively the same. Some studies in other states confirm the Washington state findings, while others show a decided decrease. Which one is valid?

Many states have established responsible advertising campaigns

Photo to illustrate the incoming laws governing drugged driving that will accompany the legalization of marijuana this summer. | Getty

Many states where smoking pot is legal have countered legalization with advertising campaigns warning of the dangers of driving and ingesting THC. For its part, the federal government has stayed out of the debate even though it is still illegal from a national perspective. 

We can help with the simple reminder; don’t be fooled. If you’ve smoked pot or have too much to drink don’t drive. Designated drivers and free taxis are just a phone call away.