At the Iyer Law Office in Englewood, we keep tabs on news that affects our community. Today, we discuss, are marijuana DUIs causing more traffic fatalities? In a Denver Post article, there is evidence that says yes. But while the number of fatal crashes for all drivers has risen, statistics to support that answer are not clear and authorities are not able to definitively link the increase in traffic deaths to the legalization of pot.
The Iyer Law Office in Englewood can answer your questions about the complicated marijuana laws and defend you if you are facing a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI). The consequences of a DUI or DWAI conviction means possible jail time, losing your driving privileges, higher insurance rates, high fines, and a permanent criminal record. If you need a DUI defense attorney, we will aggressively fight for your rights.
Background on Marijuana and Driving in Colorado
Five years ago, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 to the state constitution (Article 18, section 16). The laws are somewhat different for recreational users and medical users but not when it comes to DUIs. You can be arrested if you are driving under the influence of pot whether it is medical or recreational use because marijuana affects your reaction time, short-term memory, hand-eye coordination, concentration, and perception of time and distance. This can create a very dangerous situation while driving.
In Colorado, just like alcohol, marijuana has an established impairment level, five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of whole blood. THC is the active, psychoactive component of marijuana. Colorado law specifies that drivers with 5 nanograms of THC in their whole blood can be charged with driving under the influence. However, keep in mind that no matter the level of THC, law enforcement officers can base their DUI arrests on any impaired behavior they witness.
Are Marijuana DUIs Causing More Traffic Fatalities?
The Denver Post article took a look at the rise in traffic deaths due to marijuana DUIs and whether it was related to its legalization. According to state and federal information, including data and coroner reports, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana rose every year since 2013, a year after marijuana was legalized. It doubled in those years and showed increasingly potent levels of marijuana in positive-testing drivers who died in crashes in Colorado.
Although this increase coincides with the legalization of recreational marijuana, the Colorado transportation and public safety officials say the rising number of pot-related traffic fatalities cannot be definitively linked to legalized marijuana yet. One of the reasons is because a positive test result shown in the data doesn’t specify if the driver was high at the time of the crash because traces of marijuana use from many days to weeks before can show up as a positive result. In addition, many drivers in fatal crashes are not tested for marijuana.
Statistics for Fatal Crashes Involving Alcohol and Marijuana
There was a 40 percent increase in the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2013 to 2016 here in Colorado. The Denver Post article reported that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data showed a jump of 627 to 880.
Those drivers testing positive for alcohol in fatal crashes from 2013 to 2015 went from 129 to 151, up 17 percent. Unfortunately, 2016 statistics were not available at the time this article was published.
The number of drivers testing positive for marijuana use went from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016. These numbers may be higher because Colorado law doesn’t make it mandatory for coroners test deceased drivers for marijuana use in fatal vehicle crashes. So, some coroners test but others don’t, which gives an incomplete picture.
The Denver Post article also found that marijuana was involved in more fatal car accidents overall. For example, in 2013, in 10 percent of all fatal crashes, the drivers tested positive for pot. But by 2016, drivers testing positive for pot jumped to over 20 percent. This could easily correlate to the general population having access and being able to use legal marijuana.
More drivers are also testing positive for pot and no other drugs or substances. In 2014, more than 52 percent of the drivers that tested for pot had no alcohol in their system, but two years later it had increased to 69 percent. The penalties are the same whether it is marijuana or alcohol or the combination of substances. But when substances are combined, there is a greater degree of impairment, increasing the chances of crashes, DUI penalties, and charges.
The data for 2015 shows the average age of drivers testing positive for marijuana was 35 years old but a quarter were over 40 years old.
Of the 115 drivers in fatal crashes in 2016 testing positive for pot, 71 of those had THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana in their blood which may indicate pot use within hours of the crash and 63 percent were over the Colorado’s 5 nanograms per milliliter limit for driving.
So, are marijuana DUIs causing more traffic fatalities? The marijuana industry counters that the data is imprecise and does not link fatal crashes to marijuana use. They point out that unlike alcohol, THC remains detectable in the bloodstream for days or weeks, but any impairment would end in a matter of hours after use.
Are People Jumping to Conclusions?
With Colorado being one of the first states to legalize marijuana and with just a few years of experience dealing with the many changes that go with it, many people point out there is still not enough information about pot and how it’s detected to conclusively answer the question, are marijuana DUIs causing more traffic fatalities.
Even coroners who do test for marijuana still debate over whether to include pot on a driver’s death certificate. Some coroners point out that marijuana use changes your time and depth perception, as well as the ability to understand and be attentive to what’s around you.
Some critics also think Colorado may have rushed to legalization without considering how it would impact drivers under the influence of marijuana. They feel that there is too much focus on the upside of legalization, particularly the tax revenue created by the sales of pot.
But is it too early to come to any actual conclusions? Is more data needed to truly answer, are marijuana DUIs causing more traffic fatalities?
Most people agree additional research and data collection is needed to make conclusions on whether marijuana is causing more traffic fatalities. Whereas alcohol has had years of research and data collected and analyzed, marijuana and its effects on driving is in its very early stages. More research is needed on how pot impacts the cognitive functions needed to safely drive a car and how it affects people differently. Colorado’s legislature passed House Bill 1315 during the last session, which requires an analysis of traffic fatalities statewide and the extent to which marijuana and other drugs are involved and prosecuted.
Washington state like Colorado is dealing with legalized recreational marijuana use and its impact on driving. The Denver Post mentions that the director of Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission reports that drug-impaired driving is surpassing alcohol in that state.
A Final Look at State Numbers
In March of 2016, Colorado’s Department of Public Safety reported only half of all drivers involved in fatal crashes were tested for drugs. What often happens is they test for alcohol and if it’s positive for an alcohol DUI they don’t even test for marijuana.
Of the people who survived fatal crashes and were tested for marijuana, it showed they had used the drug within hours of testing. All of the 22 surviving drivers suspected of marijuana impairment in 2016 tested positive for levels THC and seven of them at illegal levels. In 2015, 18 of 22 drivers who survived a crash tested positive for THC. Five tested at or above 5 ng/mL, which is the legal limit. Again, within hours, THC may be present without the effects.
Coroners who do test for marijuana are finding higher levels of THC, including readings as high as 24 ng/mL, with one hitting 68, according to The Denver Post. In 2016, THC levels in fatal crashes were often more than 30 ng/mL, but only the year before, levels only occasionally topped 5 ng/mL. Still, because of the uncertainty around what constitutes impairment, coroners don’t agree on whether the presence of THC should be listed on a death certificate.
Are marijuana DUIs causing more traffic fatalities? Colorado authorities have not yet been able to conclusively connect the increase in traffic deaths to the legalization of marijuana. More research will need to be done and data collected. Because a DUI conviction can impact every part of your life, contact our attorney V Iyer at Iyer Law Office in Englewood, who understands the DUI laws and will fight for your rights.
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