Fatal Crashes involving marijuana use tripled during the previous decade, according to researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. The pot related accidents have helped fuel the overall increase in drugged-driving traffic deaths.
As widespread acceptance of marijuana becomes the norm in the U.S., demonstrated by recent legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, many experts fear a continuing upward spiral of marijuana related traffic injuries and deaths. "Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana," said co-author Dr. Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia. "If this trend continues, in five or six years non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substance involved in deaths related to impaired driving."
The study draws its conclusions from statistics on more than 23,500 drivers who died within one hour of a crash between 1999 and 2010. The toxicology tests were performed on victims from six states including: California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia. While alcohol related traffic fatalities remained steady at 40% throughout the decade, drug related deaths soared from 16% in 1999 to a whopping 28% in 2010.
Significantly, the study cites marijuana use as the leading culprit for the swelling number of drug related traffic deaths, contributing to 12 percent of 2010 crashes. This represents a 300% increase compared with four percent in 1999. The study qualifies the pot statistics by emphasizing that because marijuana stays in the blood for up to one week, therefore, researchers said, "the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment."
Not surprisingly, experts warned that combining alcohol and marijuana dramatically increases a driver's risk of death. "If a driver is under the influence of alcohol, their risk of a fatal crash is 13 times higher than the risk of the driver who is not under the influence of alcohol," Li said. "But if the driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana, their risk increases to 24 times that of a sober person."
The increase in marijuana use is not limited to any one segment of the population and is prevalent in both sexes and across all age groups, according to the online Jan. 29 American Journal of Epidemiology. The study reveals that pot impairs users similarly to the way alcohol does. Deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, Jonathan Adkins, contends that it impairs judgment, affects vision, and affects the ability to use good judgment.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) national president Jan Withers asserts that:
This study shows an alarming increase in driving under the influence of drugs and, in particular, it shows an increase in driving under the influence of both alcohol and drugs. When it comes to drugged driving versus drunk driving, the substances may be different but the consequences are the same - needless deaths and injuries.
Adkins says the study is a "wake-up call" for highway police: "The legalization of pot is going to spread to other states. It's not even a partisan issue at this point. Our expectation is this will become the norm rather than the rarity."
Co-author Li says that officials are working on improving marijuana testing devices to measure pot use when drivers are stopped by police, "I would say in maybe five years or more you will see some testing method or technique that may not be as accurate as the breathalyzer, but is more accurate than the testing devices we have today."