As More Drivers In Fatal Crashes Use Cannabis, New Report Offers States A Safety Playbook

Cannabis use is increasing in the United States, and more drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for using it behind the wheel during the pandemic. A new report aims to help states communicate more effectively with motorists about safe driving.

The report, released on Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association, Responsibility.org and the National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving, offers guidance about messages that do and don’t work, and stresses the need for more effective public outreach and education.

“As legal cannabis use becomes more widespread in the U.S., motorists need to know the dangers of driving under the influence,” Jonathan Adkins, Governors Highway Safety Association’s executive director, said in a statement. “But that message won’t be heard if it’s outdated, irrelevant or insulting to cannabis consumers. This new report offers a playbook to help states develop messaging that resonates with cannabis users and prompts them to refrain from driving for their own safety and the safety of everyone else on the road.”

Since 2011, 18 states have legalized recreational cannabis, and more states are expected to have legalization on the ballot this November. In 2019, 18% of people aged 12 and older in the U.S. reported using cannabis in the past year, up from 11% in 2002.

The report, “Cannabis Consumers and Safe Driving: Responsible Use Messaging,” comes as state highway safety offices face rapidly changing challenges that include the legality, prevalence and social norms about the drug’s use.

“There remains a significant disconnect between people’s views on its use and safe driving,” the safety groups said, noting that some people think that cannabis use actually improves their driving, even though”research confirms that cannabis directly affects the parts of the brain responsible for attention, decision-making, coordination, and reaction time, which are all critical for safe driving.”

The report referred to a survey commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in which 95% of people said driving while over the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is very or extremely dangerous, but only 69% said they believed it is dangerous to drive within an hour of consuming cannabis. And traffic fatalities involving the drug rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the report:

“Data from trauma centers indicated that 33% of drivers involved in fatal crashes had tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, in their system – a significant increase from 21% before the pandemic. Cannabis was slightly more prevalent than alcohol in fatal crash-involved drivers (33% for cannabis vs. 29% for alcohol) during the pandemic. Impairment from multiple substances also rose the past few years, with 25% of drivers in fatal crashes testing positive for more than one impairing substance, compared to 18% before the pandemic.”

The report highlights lessons learned from public outreach efforts in Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize cannabis, more recent efforts in Connecticut and Wyoming, and provides a series of recommendations about promising practices, like funding traffic safety programs from cannabis sales tax revenue, and how to better address the challenges of communicating with the public.

For example, the report suggests enlisting diverse and non-traditional advisors to deliver messengers and to use language that resonates with cannabis consumers, “so they hear the safe driving message instead of tuning it out because it has outdated terminology.”

“Impaired driving, whether it involves alcohol, cannabis, other drugs or a combination of substances, is wreaking havoc on our nation’s roads, and we all must respond quickly and effectively,” Darrin Grondel, vice president of government relations and traffic safety for Responsibility.org and director of the National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving.

The alliance’s website features an interactive, online database updated in real-time that lets users easily see cannabis and DUI states laws across the U.S.

“The messages, strategies, data, and approaches identified in this new report will make that response more effective in positively changing cannabis consumer behavior to the benefit of every American on our nation’s roadways,” Dr. Grondel added.

For more information about the report, click here.

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