Legal pot leads to drugged driving concerns, says AAA study

| January 7, 2015

As recreational marijuana use is legalized in Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia, Alaska and Colorado, safety advocates and ordinary Americans alike are concerned over the impact of driving while impaired, according to a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The analysis found that over 50% of those surveyed reported feeling that “drug-impaired drivers are a bigger problem today compared to three years ago,” and a majority support marijuana-impairment laws to improve traffic safety.

cops with marijuana in trunk of car

Driving under the influence of marijuana is predictably rising in states where it’s legal, but OTC medications can pose even greater risks. Image from goatmanbaldy.

Driving while impaired by marijuana is notoriously more difficult to spot than drunk driving. States’ varying laws don’t necessarily make enforcement simple, either. “While all states prohibit driving under the influence of drugs, there’s significant variation in the minimum acceptable levels of marijuana or its traces in a driver’s system,” Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a statement. “Sixteen states forbid any presence of prohibited drugs, while five others have specific limits for marijuana. With a lack of uniformity, it’s no surprise we found that more than half of American drivers are unaware of the laws that exist in their state.”

Consider Colorado, where the Department of Transportation launched an educational program, “The Heat Is On,” in conjunction with the state’s legalization of marijuana, which aims to increase enforcement and prevent driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Officers, including some specialized Drug Recognition Experts, are trained in recognizing the signs of substance use. The legal limit for driving in Colorado while impaired by marijuana is five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the driver’s blood, but officers also “base arrests on observed impairment.”

Washington state has the same maximum as Colorado, five parts per billion of THC in the blood, and drivers who are believed to be driving under the influence undergo a field sobriety test. “If officers establish probable cause, they will ask for permission to draw blood, or they can obtain a warrant from a judge,” reports the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center. Blood tests are mandatory in the case of collisions, and this type of enforcement isn’t new — the same standard applied before marijuana was legalized in the state. (Laws vary greatly in states that don’t currently support marijuana legalization. The organization StopDUID helpfully categorizes states by type of enforcement: Oral Fluid; Per Se; and Pending Legislation.)

While marijuana-impaired drivers may be harder to spot than drunk drivers, the impact of drugs on driver performance is still notable. “Federal government research suggests that marijuana can impair driving performance for up to 3 hours,” said Kissinger. “Decreased car handling performance, increased reaction times and sleepiness have all been documented driver impairments that result from marijuana use.”

Although the AAA poll found that a comparably small percentage (about 25%) of Americans felt concerned over driving while using prescription drugs, both over-the-counter and prescription drugs can also present serious dangers. Reports AAA: “Previous studies have found that a single dose of some cold and allergy medications can have the same effect on driving as being above the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration, and certain antidepressants have been shown to increase crash risk by up to 41%.” Be safe: Check with your doctor prior to driving if you’re taking medicines or other drugs.

Want to learn more? Check out StopDUID’s comprehensive report on drugged driving laws and enforcement, read up on AAA’s impaired driving facts, and consult your local laws for more details.

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Category: Legislation, Transportation