Pot smoking driverWith Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana use, Coloradans might be interested in a new study finding that fatal crashes involving marijuana use tripled from 1999 to 2010. The study, from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is based on data from six states that have routinely done toxological testing on drivers involved in fatal car crashes. Those states include California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia, according to a Mailman press release, which notes that the data comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

The researchers, led by Joanne Brady, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, found that of 23,591 drivers who died within one hour of a crash, 39.7% tested positive for alcohol, and 24.8% for other drugs, of which marijuana was the most commonly detected non-alcohol drug. And although data found more men (43.6%) had been drinking alcohol before driving than women (26.1%), the increase in the prevalence of marijuana was reported for both men and women, and in drivers of all ages. Research from 2007 to 2013 shows increased use of marijuana by patients treated in Colorado health-care facilities, Brady notes; she says that could be due to the growing decriminalization of marijuana.

The press release says:

Over the last 17 years, 20 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted legislation, and four more states have legislation pending, to decriminalize marijuana for medical use. ‘Although each of these states has laws that prohibit driving under the influence of marijuana, it is still conceivable that its decriminalization may result in increases in crashes involving marijuana.’

In the findings, which appear online in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers say that combined use of alcohol and marijuana dramatically increases a driver’s risk of death, writes Dennis Thompson for HealthDay. Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told Thompson that marijuana impairs driving in a similar way that alcohol does, impairing judgment, affecting vision, and making a driver more distractible and likely to take risks behind the wheel.

In the Mailman press release, Li, who is a professor of Epidemiology and Anesthesiology, says that “trends in narcotic involvement in driver fatalities have been understudied.” He added that it is of significant public health importance to understand the role of controlled substances in motor vehicle crashes because of the increasing availability of marijuana “and the ongoing opioid overdose epidemic.”

Adkins told Thompson that this study’s findings are extremely important to traffic safety officials, because the legalization of pot is going to spread to other states and will most likely become the norm, but marijuana and drug use before driving do not have the same stigma as drunk driving does.

Adkins said: “We need to alert the public that if you’ve used any type of substance, you should not get behind the wheel. We need to create that culture where, like drunk driving, it is not acceptable.”

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