Understanding the Dangers of Driving While High

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Recent articles discuss the dangers of driving while under the influence of cannabis and how the risks and dangers may differ from those of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Two recent articles discussed the dangers of driving while under the influence of cannabis, as well as broader policy discussions surrounding the issue. In the New York Times, a health column addressed whether driving while high is as dangerous as driving while drunk. The column argued that the question isn’t quite as clear-cut as drunk driving, which has accounted for an increasing number of car crash-related fatalities in recent years: up from 9% in 2000 to roughly 22% in 2018, even as drunk driving-related fatalities remained more or less steady. 

According to the column, research suggests that, while undeniably risky, stoned driving may be less risky than drunk driving. “In one 2017 examination of more than 4,000 drivers from a police database in France, researchers found that drivers under the influence of alcohol were roughly 17.8 times more likely to be responsible for fatal car crashes than drivers who were sober,” the column notes, “while drivers under the influence of marijuana were 1.65 times more likely to cause deadly accidents.” A 2007 study of car crashes in the US found a slightly higher likelihood of fatal stoned driving incidents, concluding that drivers under the influence of cannabis “were 1.83 times more likely than sober drivers to be involved in a fatal crash.”

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Understanding the effects of cannabis and how much one has consumed is much harder to determine than the amount of alcohol in the body, which is what has pushed officials to promote safer driving and to bring attention to the risks of driving while high.

However, the Times notes, the data surrounding stoned driving presents challenges, not to mention the data surrounding cannabis itself. Whereas there has long been a medical and popular consensus over the meaning of a drink of alcohol—“12 ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits”—there is no such understanding when it comes to cannabis usage, meaning people cannot assess quite as easily how much they’ve consumed, nor whether it’s enough to rule out getting behind the wheels of a car. Similarly, the research into stoned driving-related incidents is complicated by a general reliance on drug testing after car crashes. “But because cannabis can hang around in fatty tissues for up to 28 days,” the Times observes, “a positive drug test does not necessarily mean that a driver was high at the moment they were driving.” To complicate matters further, the form in which the user consumes the cannabis—whether they smoke it or take an edible, for instance—affects how quickly the drug is metabolized, which in turn affects how long they remain high. 

A recent public health effort in Colorado has drawn attention to the risks of stoned driving, tying the issue into broader systemic changes needed to mitigate traffic violence. As Streetsblog reported last week, a coalition of traffic safety activists, health officials, and “cannabis industry reps” joined forces in a call for drivers to commit to safe driving during the informal cannabis holiday 4/20, in whose lead-up the state’s cannabis dispensaries reportedly see massive sales spikes. The state has seen a raft of cannabis-related car crash deaths, with the drug “implicated in 37 percent of the Centennial State’s roadway fatalities last year,” according to Streetsblog, which notes this figure’s inherent complexities. Still, the coalition of safety advocates have called for people using cannabis to use ride-sharing or designated while high. A spokesperson for AAA Colorado, meanwhile, argued that more than personal commitments are necessary to reduce the dangers of driving under the influence. “We have built our entire society around the car,” he said, according to Streetsblog. “And if we want to get serious about solving this, we need to… make transit appealing to people who get drunk and high.”

More information on the risks of stoned driving, and recent efforts to mitigate these risks, is available via the New York Times and Streetsblog.

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