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Will Car Crashes Spike with the Legalization of Recreational Weed?

On Behalf of | Feb 6, 2020 | Motor Vehicle Accidents |


The legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois could cause a spike in the number of motor vehicle accidents that occur. According to a recent Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) analysis, other states that have legalized recreational weed have experienced collision claim frequencies that are higher than what would have been expected prior to changes in the law.

Marijuana-Related Accidents in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington

Colorado, Oregon, and Washington were among the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Each of these states witnessed an increased number of motor vehicle accident claims at least 3% higher than the year prior to legalization. As with alcohol and other mind-altering substances, the use of marijuana whether it is for medical or recreational purposes negatively impacts a motorist’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that drivers who are under the influence of marijuana are twice as likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident. Arrest reports from Colorado, Oregon, and Washington show that an increasing number of motorists are using marijuana and then getting behind the wheel.

Further, research shows that accident rates in states where marijuana is legal for recreational usage are significantly higher than neighboring states that prohibit marijuana use. For instance, following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, the state reported a collision claim frequency that was 14% higher than accident rates in Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. Similarly, accident rates in Washington were 6.2% higher than in Montana and Idaho, while Oregon’s were 4.5% higher than Idaho, Montana, and Nevada.

Impact of Marijuana on Driving Ability

Studies have demonstrated that marijuana use diminishes cognitive function and slows reaction time. Motorists under the influence of marijuana are as dangerous as those under the influence of prescription opioids and other mind-altering substances.

To date, there are no reliable, “real world” studies that demonstrate the full extent that marijuana limits an individual’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. However, anecdotal data from crash test studies and simulators indicates that those under the influence may be significantly impaired. Individuals who consume marijuana products prior to getting behind the wheel of a car place themselves, their passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists at serious risk of personal injury or death.

Into the Weeds

33 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and 10 have legalized it for recreational use. In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington the number of fatalities increased by one per million residents in the six months following legalization. For these three states, the number of fatalities increased by 170 in the first six months following the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Nationwide, the number of marijuana-involved motor vehicle accidents has tripled in the past few years. Not long ago, Columbia University conducted studies that indicated one out of every nine drivers involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident would test positive for THC either via blood or urine sampling. At the current rate, it is estimated that within five to six years, non-alcohol drugs including marijuana will overtake alcohol as the leading intoxicant involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents.

Based on this data, and data from other states, there is a significant possibility that the fatality rate in Illinois will also rise over the coming year. For motorists in Illinois, increased vigilance is advisable. This means avoiding traveling during late-night hours on weekends when an estimated 20% of drivers are under the influence of marijuana and maintaining greater vigilance on holidays and other high-risk times.

It also means that individuals who choose to consume marijuana products need to enhance their self-monitoring and should never consume any marijuana products prior to getting behind the wheel. No marijuana is the only safe option and motorists who tempt fate by assuming they have a tolerance or immunity to intoxication from marijuana products put themselves and other motorists at risk.

Signs of Marijuana Intoxication

Signs of marijuana intoxication in motorists are similar to those of alcohol and many other illicit substances. These include the inability to control speed, inability to maintain lane control, failing to signal lane changes, erratic driving behaviors, and lack of attention to the road. Closely monitoring vehicle traffic for these signs at all times can help drivers stay safe.

When motorists encounter potentially intoxicated motorists, extreme caution is advised. Individuals should steer clear of the vehicle and report the driver to law enforcement. At no time should motorists attempt to confront or engage a driver whom they suspect of driving under the influence of marijuana. Other physical signs that may be apparent include red eyes, lack of muscle coordination, slowed reaction times, and odors that indicate the individual has recently consumed marijuana. Because marijuana can be smoked, vaped, or ingested, not all of these physical symptoms may be present.