What Is the Impact of Legalizing Marijuana on Traffic Accidents?

There has been much controversy regarding the impact of changing marijuana laws on impaired driving. Advocates of legalization claim a correlated decrease in alcohol consumption will decrease traffic accidents, while opponents of legalization say the increased use of marijuana will contribute to more traffic fatalities. There has been some study to determine which position is correct, but the conclusion is still uncertain. Here is a brief introduction to the arguments and the data backing up differing claims.


It’s Complicated

Aside from alcohol, Marijuana is the most widely found drug in the bloodstream of motorists who get into accidents. This surface examination might lead to the conclusion that marijuana is a major road safety concern. However, the degree to which cannabis actually impairs driving is still unclear. It is certainly less clear than the danger posed by drunk drivers, as anyone who has seen a motorist under the influence of alcohol can attest. Also, roadside testing for marijuana is still in its infancy, less widespread than breathalyzer technology, and less quantifiable. The issue is further complicated by the differential effects of CBD, which does not create the “high” associated with marijuana intake, compared to THC, which does.


Decreasing Drunk Driving?

One study concluded that legalizing marijuana decreases alcohol consumption and thereby reduces traffic deaths. Many more research groups have shown that alcohol consumption on the whole, not just among motorists, declines in states where marijuana has been legalized. This would seem to indicate an overall reduction in impaired drivers under the influence of alcohol, which would obviously correlate to lower traffic accidents caused by alcohol.


What Qualifies as Impaired Driving?

The effects of marijuana are drastically different from those of alcohol. Some of the physiological effects of alcohol include increased risk-taking, delusional self-perception of ability to perform tasks such as driving and reduced hand-eye coordination. None of these effects are caused by cannabis consumption. Furthermore, the escalating rate of alcohol intoxication with growing consumption is known. The physiological effects of alcohol on driving ability are well-established and researched, hence the legal limit of .08% blood alcohol level in most states. No such science-based impairment thresholds exist for marijuana, so quantifying the effects of cannabis is more challenging. 


Most studies on marijuana use and traffic accidents simply cite the existence of any amount of marijuana in the system as evidence of impaired driving. More research is needed to establish any relationship between marijuana and traffic accidents. In the meantime, people may want to consider using public transit or a rideshare after partaking in cannabis.

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