Marijuana

Examining collision claims from January 2012 to October 2016, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a leading insurance research group, showed in the results of its recent study that claims in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon increased 3% in the years since legal recreational marijuana sales began between January 2014 and October 2016, when compared with surrounding states.

The Highway Loss Data Institute’s study conducted a combined analysis using neighboring states as additional controls, to examine the collision claims experience of Colorado, Oregon and Washington before and after law changes. Control states included Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, plus Colorado, Oregon and Washington prior to legalization of recreational use. Medical marijuana use was permitted during that time in Nevada, Montana, Wyoming and Utah, and Idaho did not permit it.

HLDI compared loss results for Colorado, Oregon and Washington individually with loss results for adjacent states without legalized recreational marijuana use prior to November 2016. Colorado’s increase in claim frequency was 14 percent higher than neighboring Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming.  Washington’s claim frequency increase was 6 percent higher than in Montana and Idaho, and Oregon’s increase was 4 percent higher than in Idaho, Montana and Nevada. The combined increase for all three states was 3 percent. The study accounted for the following factors, using neighboring states with car crash increase for comparison:

  • Number of vehicles on the road
  • Age and gender of drivers
  • Weather and seasonality
  • Whether the driver was employed

“Worry that legalized marijuana is increasing crash rates isn’t misplaced,” said David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “HLDI’s findings on the early experience of Colorado, Oregon and Washington should give other states eyeing legalization pause.”

Earlier AAA Foundation Study Shows Similar Results

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a similar study in 2016, showing traffic fatalities had increased 6 percent in Washington from 2013 to 2014 after marijuana was legalized in that state, while national fatalities decreased during that time. AAA’s study showed that one in six drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2014 had recently used marijuana.

AAA Study Questions Validity of Marijuana Blood Test

The AAA study also concluded that limits of THC (the intoxicating chemical in marijuana), based on blood test established by states with legal marijuana, have no scientific basis because there is no science that shows drivers become impaired at a specific level of THC in the blood. Frequent users of the drug can also show persistent levels of it long after use, while THC levels can decline more rapidly in occasional users, causing innocent drivers to be convicted and guilty drivers released. The average time to collect blood from a suspected driver is often more than two hours, requiring a warrant and transport to a police station or hospital for testing. By that time, the drug may no longer be present.

Because blood tests are imprecise with measuring levels of THC, the AAA Foundation recommended replacing current laws with ones that rely on police officer conducted field sobriety tests, backed up by a test for the presence of THC.

Oregon Police Drug Recognition Program

In Oregon, police officers attend a Drug Recognition Program. When an officer in Oregon pulls over a car for a traffic violation such as speeding, swerving, or broken taillights or if the driver is suspected of a crime, the officer evaluates the driver for the following obvious signs:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • “Beavis and Butthead” type laugh

When the officer suspects that the person is intoxicated, he or she asks the driver to undergo the following field sobriety test:

  • Balancing on a line and walking with one foot in front of the other
  • Pivoting
  • Balancing on one leg
  • Touching one finger to the nose

Field Sobriety Tests Used by California Police

Police officers in California use a somewhat different set of field sobriety tests.

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test

The officer moves an object or his or her own finger from side to side in front of the person’s face to detect an involuntary jerking of the eye associated with high levels of intoxication. A person’s eye will normally jerk after being strained beyond a 45 degree angle. If the eye begins to jerk at or before moving 45 degrees, it is evidence that the driver is under the influence.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that this test is 77 percent reliable.

Walk and Turn Test (also called the “Walk the Line Test”)

The officer asks the suspected offender to walk a certain number of steps in a straight line and observes if the person:

  • Loses balance
  • Makes the wrong number of steps
  • Is unable to stay on the line
  • Breaks while walking
  • Begins before instructed

NHTSA estimates that this test is effective 68 percent of the time.

One Leg Stand Test

The officer instructs a suspect standing on one leg to raise his or her foot, hold still, count, and look down. The officer may arrest the suspect if he or she is:

  • Swaying
  • Hopping
  • Putting the raised foot down

NHTSA estimates that this test is effective 65 percent of the time.

“Marijuana can affect driver safety by impairing vehicle control and judgment,” said AAA president and CEO Marshall Doney. “States need consistent, strong and fair enforcement measures to ensure that the increased use of marijuana does not impact road safety.“

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