Fatalities involving marijuana-impaired drivers on the rise; here’s how to start fixing it

Since the legalization of recreational-use pot, the number of fatalities in Washington marijuana-impaired drivers has nearly doubled.
Since the legalization of recreational-use pot, the number of fatalities in Washington marijuana-impaired drivers has nearly doubled. Fotolia

Question: Now that we’ve had a few years of legalized marijuana, do we know what impact that has had on impaired driving?

Answer: Before I answer that, I’ll point out that understanding traffic data is complex and we can’t always draw accurate conclusions from one set of data. But let’s look at one set of data anyway, because it’s pretty compelling. A look at the number of traffic fatalities involving marijuana impaired drivers from 2011 to 2016. It gives us three years prior to legalization and three years since legalization.

0814 Road Rules graphic

That’s a tragic increase, and when we talk about traffic data, we’re really talking about people’s lives. Every number on a chart is also a friend, family member or neighbor.

Is the increase caused by legalization? Unfortunately, since 2014 we’ve had more deaths overall from traffic crashes; notably with distracted drivers, young drivers and older drivers. But none of those categories have nearly doubled, and none of them had a distinct moment where they shifted from one steady crash rate to a much higher rate.

Could it be that since legalization the crash investigators have become better at identifying marijuana impaired drivers? That’s a possibility in less serious crashes, but for years it’s been standard protocol to take blood samples of drivers involved in fatal crashes and test for a variety of intoxicants.

Given the evidence, it’s hard to argue that the legalization of marijuana hasn’t had an impact on fatal crashes. The next question becomes, what do we do about it?

Enforcement is a core component of reducing impaired driving. Beginning next week, local law enforcement agencies will be participating in statewide impaired driving emphasis patrols. Don’t be surprised to see more officers focused on arresting impaired drivers.

But enforcement alone won’t end impaired driving. Police on emphasis patrols are outnumbered by impaired drivers – they can’t stop them all. Drivers also need education about impaired driving.

A generation or two ago, drivers had a much different attitude toward alcohol impaired driving, and the fatality rates on our highways proved it. As drivers learned about the impacts and consequences of drinking and driving, we saw a cultural shift in attitude towards DUI and decreases in alcohol-impaired death. When it comes to drunk driving, that trend continues; while marijuana-involved crashes are increasing, alcohol-involved fatal crashes have continued to drop.

Education only works if the message reaches the people most likely to benefit from it. Telling someone who doesn’t drink or use marijuana about the impacts of impaired driving won’t have much of an effect on traffic safety (unless they use that information to intervene in a friend’s risky behavior.) Ideally, we want to target the message toward people most likely to drive impaired.

As it happens, we can do that. The most likely person to drive impaired is the person who has already driven impaired. Obviously, this includes anyone with a DUI conviction.

This brings us to a valuable tool in impaired driving education; the Victim Impact Panel (VIP). In communities that have VIPs, a judge can order a person convicted of impaired driving to attend a VIP as part of the sentencing. I spoke with the VIP coordinator in Whatcom County to find out more.

If you were to attend a Victim Impact Panel (and you can – more about that later) you would hear, as the name suggests, true stories from victims of impaired driving crashes. Speakers at a VIP have lived with the consequences of someone’s decision to drive drunk or high. The value of the VIP is that attendees get to hear from and ask questions of a real person in their community who has suffered because of an impaired driver.

The VIP has a goal to help people make more informed choices.

And it seems to be effective. People who go to a VIP only because they’ve been ordered by the court often don’t leave until they’ve had the opportunity to thank speakers for their stories and declare a commitment to sober driving. They’ve witnessed, through the speakers, the physical, psychological and financial impacts of a DUI crash, and they’ve seen how a decision that they’ve made exposes others to those risks.

Although most people who go to a VIP are there because of a court order, that’s not a requirement. If you want to see it for yourself, or you’d like to bring someone who needs to hear from a victim of an impaired driving crash, you’re welcome to attend. The next one is at 7 p.m. Aug. 21st in the County Council Chambers. Be prompt; I hear they close the doors at starting time. You can find out more about VIP from the Whatcom County Health Department.

The VIP is one solution to ending impaired driving, but it won’t solve the problem on its own. As a community, I hope we can all work to shift our cultural attitude on impaired driving, whether alcohol, marijuana or other drugs, and keep moving toward zero fatalities on our roads.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.