Fa­tal road crashes in­volv­ing mar­i­juana dou­ble af­ter Wash­ing­ton le­gal­izes drug

The Calvert Recorder - Southern Maryland Automotive Trends - - News -

Fa­tal crashes in­volv­ing driv­ers who re­cently used mar­i­juana dou­bled in Wash­ing­ton af­ter the state le­gal­ized the drug, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­search by the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety.

New re­search also shows that le­gal lim­its for mar­i­juana and driv­ing are ar­bi­trary and un­sup­ported by sci­ence, which could re­sult in un­safe mo­torists go­ing free and oth­ers be­ing wrong­fully con­victed for im­paired driv­ing. 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.

The Foun­da­tion ex­am­ined drug tests and fa­tal crashes among driv­ers in Wash­ing­ton, a state that le­gal­ized mar­i­juana in De­cem­ber 2012. The re­searchers found:

• The per­cent­age of driv­ers in­volved in fa­tal crashes who re­cently used mar­i­juana more than dou­bled from eight to 17 per­cent be­tween 2013 and 2014.

• One in six driv­ers in­volved in fa­tal crashes in 2014 had re­cently used mar­i­juana, which is the most re­cent data avail­able.

“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.”

In an at­tempt to en­force drug-im­paired driv­ing, some states have cre­ated le­gal lim­its, also known as per se lim­its, which spec­ify the max­i­mum amount of ac­tive THC that driv­ers can have in their sys­tem based on a blood test. THC is the main chem­i­cal com­po­nent in mar­i­juana that can im­pair driver per­for­mance and af­fect the mind, and the pres­ence of ac­tive THC is gen­er­ally sug­ges­tive of re­cent mar­i­juana use. These lim­its are sim­i­lar in con­cept to the .08 BAC limit for driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol.

Re­searchers ex­am­ined the lab re­sults of driv­ers ar­rested for im­paired driv­ing, 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. De­pend­ing on the in­di­vid­ual, driv­ers with rel­a­tively high lev­els of mar­i­juana in their sys­tem might not be im­paired, while oth­ers with low lev­els may be un­safe be­hind the wheel. This find­ing is very dif­fer­ent from al­co­hol, where it is clear that crash risk in­creases sig­nif­i­cantly at higher BAC lev­els.

• High THC lev­els may drop be­low le­gal thresh­olds be­fore a test is ad­min­is­tered to a sus­pected im­paired driver. The av­er­age time to col­lect blood from a sus­pected driver is of­ten more than two hours be­cause tak­ing a blood sam­ple typ­i­cally re­quires a war­rant and trans­port to a fa­cil­ity. Ac­tive THC blood lev­els may de­cline sig­nif­i­cantly and could drop be­low le­gal lim­its dur­ing that time.

• Mar­i­juana can af­fect peo­ple dif­fer­ently, mak­ing it chal­leng­ing to de­velop con­sis­tent and fair guide­lines. For ex­am­ple, fre­quent us- ers of mar­i­juana can ex­hibit per­sis­tent lev­els of the drug long af­ter use, while drug lev­els can de­cline more rapidly among oc­ca­sional users.

“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 Mar­shall Doney, AAA’s pres­i­dent and CEO. “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 le- gal 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 judg­ment,” Doney said. “States need con­sis­tent, strong and fair en­force­ment mea­sures to en­sure that the in­creased use of mar­i­juana does not im­pact road safety.”

Whether the use of mar­i­juana is le­gal or not, all mo­torists should avoid driv­ing while im­paired. Just be­cause a drug is le­gal does not mean it is safe to use while op­er­at­ing a mo­tor ve­hi­cle. Driv­ers who get be­hind the wheel while im­paired put them­selves and oth­ers on the road at risk.

Four states, in­clud­ing Alaska, Colorado, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton as well as Wash­ing­ton, D.C., have le­gal­ized the recre­ational use of mar­i­juana, and 20 states have le­gal­ized it for ther­a­peu­tic and medic­i­nal use. Mon­tana and Wash­ing­ton have im­ple­mented a per se limit for mar­i­juana at 5 ng/mL; Ne­vada and Ohio have set a limit at 2 ng/mL; and Penn­syl­va­nia’s is set at 1 ng/mL. Twelve states have strict per se laws that for­bid the pres­ence of any lev­els of mar­i­juana. In Colorado, a blood con­cen­tra­tion of 5 ng/mL or more gives rise to per­mis­si­ble in­fer­ence that a per­son was driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of the drug.

Es­tab­lished by AAA in 1947, the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit, pub­licly sup­ported char­i­ta­ble re­search and ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ded­i­cated to sav­ing lives and re­duc­ing in­juries on our roads, the Foun­da­tion’s mis­sion is to pre­vent crashes and save lives through re­search and ed­u­ca­tion about traf­fic safety. The Foun­da­tion has funded over 300 re­search projects de­signed to dis­cover the causes of traf­fic crashes, pre­vent them and min­i­mize in­juries when they do oc­cur. Go to www.AAAFoun­da­tion.org for more in­for­ma­tion on this and other re­search.

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