Is Marijuana Legalization Tied To An Increase In Pedestrian Deaths?

By Kelly Burch 03/02/18
States where the adult use of marijuana was legalized had an uptick in pedestrian traffic deaths last year, according to a new study.
people using a busy cross walk

More pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2017 than in any year since 1990, and researchers believe that the legalization of marijuana for adult use may have something to do with the rise in fatalities. 

According to a study released this week by the Governors Highway Safety Association, states that legalized marijuana for adult use (or "recreational marijuana") saw a 16.4% increase in pedestrian traffic deaths in the first half of 2017, compared to 2016. All other states—those that did not legalize—saw a 5.8% decrease in pedestrian deaths. 

Although the connection was not causal, the correlation was enough to catch the attention of Richard Retting, a traffic safety engineer at Sam Schwartz Consulting and author of the study.

“We are not making a definitive, cause-and-effect link to marijuana,” Retting told The New York Times, calling the data “a marker for concern.”

He said that researchers will continue to monitor for links between traffic deaths and marijuana legalization. “It may be a canary in a coal mine, an early indicator to address,” Retting said. 

Researchers couldn’t say whether the data might indicate more marijuana use by drivers, pedestrians or both. 

Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia all legalized marijuana between 2012 and 2016, the time period that the researchers looked at.

Maine and Alaska, which have small populations, had such few fatalities that it was hard to connect increases with marijuana legalization. Massachusetts was the only legal marijuana state that saw fewer deaths in 2017—though the difference was only by one. 

Other states, including Colorado, saw a more significant percentage increase, although the numbers remained relatively low. There, 37 people were killed in pedestrian accidents in the first half of 2017, an increase of 12% over the previous year. 

Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, said that while the connection will be interesting to monitor, it is too soon to draw any conclusions about a possible link between marijuana legalization and pedestrian deaths. 

“I’d be cautious about drawing a direct link to any potential cause,” he said. “But it’s certainly worth trying to figure out why those numbers are what they are.”

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that overall insurance claims are 3% higher in states that have legalized marijuana for adult use. 

While researchers will continue to monitor the connection between marijuana policy and pedestrian fatalities, they are also looking at rising smartphone use among drivers as another factor. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.