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Is driving “high on pot” safer than driving sober?

April 1, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

New research challenges this safety myth that driving is safer when using  marijuana. There are real dangers.

driving on marijuana

Is driving under the influence of marijuana safe?

Is driving when you are high from smoking pot safer driver than if you are driving sober?

Many people think so. In fact, it has become an urban legend that people who smoke pot and drive are not only safe drivers, but that smoking pot and driving actually makes you a better driver. And, based on some of the responses I received on Twitter and Facebook from my last post about driving high on recreational or medical marijuana,  this urban legend is alive and well.  More than a few responses answered the question of, “Is it safe to drive after smoking pot?” with an emphatic “Yes.”

But it appears the scientific research answers the question with an emphatic “No.”

Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center have recently published the results of their study, “Trends in Alcohol and Other Drugs Detected in Fatally Injured Drivers in the United States, 1999–2010,” which gives both sets of folks something to think about.

In his article, “Is Driving While High Dangerous? Fatal Car Accidents Involving Marijuana Triple Over 10 Years,” Phillip Ross of the International Business Times reports on the Columbia researchers’ study results, but not before mentioning the following:

“Many pot smokers will tell you that driving under the influence of marijuana is actually safer than driving sober, their logic being that pot smokers tend to drive under the speed limit and use their paranoia to focus on the road.”

Ross goes on to explain that the results of the Columbia researchers’ study shows “a darker side to the popular conviction that driving while stoned is no big deal”:

“According to a recent study [the results of which were published in published in the American Journal of Epidemiology] of marijuana use and car accidents, fatal crashes involving people who were stoned have tripled over the last 10 years.”

“‘Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana,’ study co-author Dr. Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, told HealthDay. ‘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.’”

I should add here as an accident attorney, that I would put the numbers from my own cases even higher than the one in nine drivers number that the researchers estimate. I regularly review the ER records people involved in terrible crashes, and drug use is a common finding in the lab results.

No consensus on just how dangerous driving while high from marijuana actually is

As for how dangerous “driving while high” actually is, Ross notes that “experts still haven’t come to a consensus on the issue.”

For instance, he quotes from Jenny Hollander’s article in Bustle, “How Dangerous Is It To Drive Stoned? Study Links Marijuana and Car Accidents”:

“Stoned drivers behave differently from drunk drivers. Stoned drivers are more aware that they’re intoxicated — the opposite applies for drunk drivers — and so they tend to actually drive more slowly and carefully. Therefore, drivers who are a little stoned are generally safer drivers than those who are a little drunk.”

However, Ms. Hollander also made the following important points:

“Here’s what we know for sure: Driving while you’re more than a little high — that’s to say, moderately to very high — is associated with more serious accidents, in particular fatal accidents. The logic goes like this: While high, you would probably be aware you’re high and would be driving slowly and very carefully, so minor collisions might be avoidable. But if a situation comes up that requires quick reflexes, you might not manage it. Those few extra seconds of delayed reaction — for example, to a traffic light quickly changing, or a pedestrian running in front of a car — are associated with more severe accidents, such as a car flying off the road or slamming into a person or vehicle at top speed.”

“[Even though there’s speculation that “driving stoned is less dangerous (comparatively) than driving drunk”], that’s not to say that driving high is in any way safe, as indicated by the [recent] study, which saw far more pot smokers behind the wheel during fatal car crashes than a decade ago. That’s also not to say that deadly car crashes are on the rise. Just that as marijuana use becomes more accepted, more popular, and more legal, more people are getting high — and more of them are behind the wheel during a crash.”

Although neither Ross nor Hollander mentioned the Marijuana Policy Project in their discussion about how dangerous “driving while high” can be, the Marijuana Policy Project has said the following about marijuana use and driver impairment:

  • “It is unclear what blood level of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) constitutes actual impairment.”
  • “The most meaningful recent study … indicated that drivers with THC concentrations of less than five ng/mL in their blood have a crash risk no higher than that of drug-free users.”
  • “The crash risk begins to rise above the risk for sober drivers when a marijuana user’s THC concentrations in whole blood reach five to 10 ng/mL.”

Related information:

A marijuana breathalyzer?

What happens when someone using legal medical marijuana causes a car accident?

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