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Fatal Crashes Involving Marijuana Double in Washington State

Jun 08, 2016 11:17AM ● By Theresa Gilman
(Editor's Note: this information was provided by AAA Northeast.)

Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington after that state legalized the drug, according to the latest research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Washington was one of the first two states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and these findings raise serious concerns about drug-impaired driving with at least 20 states considering marijuana legalization this year.

A second research report was also released today by AAA, one evaluating the challenges of the setting of legal limits for marijuana and driving. The highlights of the two reports include:
  1. Washington legalized marijuana in December of 2012.
  2. The percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had recently used marijuana more than doubled, from eight percent to 17 percent between 2013 and 2014.
  3. In addition, one in six drivers in Washington involved in fatal crashes in 2014 (most recent data available) had recently used marijuana.
In order to enforce drug-impaired driving laws, some states have created legal limits, also known as per se limits, which specify the maximum amount of THC (the main chemical component in marijuana) that drivers can have in their system based on a blood test. AAA’s research, however, showed that legal limits are arbitrary and not supported by science.

AAA’s findings lead to a belief that states should use more comprehensive enforcement measures to improve road safety.
 
“The significant increase in fatal crashes involving marijuana is alarming,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. ”Washington serves as an eye-opening case study for what other states may experience with road safety after legalizing the drug.”

The use of legal limits to determine the amount of THC in the blood is similar in concept to the .08 BAC limit for driving under the influence of alcohol. Researchers examined lab results of drivers arrested for impaired driving, however, and the results suggest that legal limits for marijuana and driving are problematic because:

*There is no science showing that drivers reliably become impaired at a specific level of marijuana in the blood.

*High THC levels may drop below legal thresholds before a test is administered to a suspected impaired driver.

*Marijuana can affect people differently, making it more challenging to develop consistent and fair guidelines.

“There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol,” said Mary Maguire, AAA Northeast Director of Public and Legislative Affairs. “In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research. It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of the drug in their body.”

AAA is urging states to use more comprehensive enforcement measures to improve road safety. Rather than relying on arbitrary legal limits, states should use a two-component system that requires (1) a positive test for recent marijuana use, and most importantly, (2) behavioral and physiological evidence of driver impairment. This system would rely heavily on two current law-enforcement training programs: Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and the 50-state Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) program. These programs train law enforcement officers around the country to more effectively recognize drug-impaired driving.
 
“Marijuana can affect driver safety by impairing vehicle control and judgement,” continued Ms. Maguire. “States need consistent, strong and fair enforcement measures to ensure that the increased use of marijuana does not impact road safety.”

Four states, including Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, plus Washington, DC, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and 20 states have legalized it for therapeutic and medicinal use.
 
AAA Northeast is a not-for-profit auto club with 62 offices in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New York, providing more than 2 million local AAA members with travel, insurance, finance, and auto-related services.
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