Marijuana-Related Fatal Car Crashes Have 'Skyrocketed' in Utah

By Paul Gaita 05/25/16

Some state officials have attributed the increase in numbers to pot legalization in nearby states like Colorado.

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Marijuana-Related Fatal Car Crashes Have 'Skyrocketed' in Utah

According to a new report by the Utah Highway Safety Office, the percentage of fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana rose significantly in the past three years, but it remains uncertain if the drug was the primary cause of the accident. The report, issued in February, shows that between 2012 and 2015, the number of fatal crashes involving drivers with detectable levels of marijuana in their systems rose from 6% to 15%—or from 11 fatal crashes in 2012 to 38 in 2015.

The Utah report echoes similar findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which, in a statement released on May 10, found that traffic fatalities involving drivers in Washington state who used marijuana more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.

The statistics elicited alarm from state lawmakers and law enforcement officials, some of whom expressed concerns during the 2016 medical marijuana debate in the Utah Legislature that legalization would increase driving fatalities in the states. Some have attributed the increase in numbers to legalization efforts in nearby states like Colorado.

“[That] could be a factor in seeing more [drivers who test positive for marijuana] here across state lines,” stated Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Christian Newlin, who supervises the office’s breath testing and drug recognition programs. Legalization advocates have also shown concern over the data, but as Christine Stenquist, executive director of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), noted, the Utah study “doesn’t quite explain everything.”

Unlike alcohol, marijuana does not have a baseline threshold for impairment. One user with high levels of THC in their system may be unable to safely operate a vehicle, while another individual with the same levels may be able to drive with no concerns. Also, detectable traces of marijuana remain in the blood for days or even weeks after use, long after the psychoactive effects of THC have worn off.

Both factors were noted in the AAA Foundation report, which also noted that the majority of the fatal crashes they investigated involved drivers with alcohol or other drugs in their system along with marijuana. These factors make it difficult to determine exactly what role marijuana played in the crashes cited in the Utah study.

A large-scale study conducted in 2015 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that there was no link between THC use and crash risk, even after factoring in the age, gender, ethnicity and alcohol concentration levels of more than 3,000 drivers involved in a car crash, and an additional 6,000 drivers who were not associated with a traffic accident.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.