As more drivers use cannabis in fatal accidents, a new report offers states a safety playbook

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

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

“As legal cannabis use becomes more prevalent in the United States, motorists need to understand the dangers of driving under the influence,” Governors Highway Safety Association executive director Jonathan Adkins said in a statement. “But that message won’t be heard if it’s outdated, irrelevant or offensive to cannabis users. This new report offers a playbook to help states develop messages that resonate with cannabis users, urging 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 be on the ballot for legalization this November. In 2019, 18% of people 12 and older in the US reported using cannabis in the past year, up from 11% in 2002.

The report, Cannabis Users and Safe Driving: Responsible Use Notices, comes as state safety agencies face rapidly changing challenges that include the legality, prevalence and social norms of drug 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 cannabis use actually improves their driving, although “research confirms that cannabis affects the responsible parts of the brain directly influences attention, decision-making, coordination and reaction time, which are crucial for safe driving.”

The report referenced a survey commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in which 95% of respondents said driving above the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was very or extremely dangerous, but only 69% said they considered it dangerous Drive within an hour of using cannabis. And traffic deaths related to the drug rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the report:

“Data from trauma centers showed that 33% of drivers involved in fatal accidents had tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, in their system – a significant increase from 21% before the pandemic. Cannabis was slightly more common than alcohol in fatal accidents during the pandemic (33% for cannabis versus 29% for alcohol). Multi-substance impairment has also increased in recent years, with 25% of drivers in fatal accidents testing positive for more than one impairing substance, compared to 18% before the pandemic.”

The report highlights lessons learned from public efforts in Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize cannabis, as well as more recent efforts in Connecticut and Wyoming, and offers a number of recommendations on promising practices, such as 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 hiring diverse and non-traditional consultants to deliver messengers and use language that resonates with cannabis users “so they hear the safe driving message, rather than tuning them out because of outdated terminology.”

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

The Allianz website features an interactive, real-time updated online database that allows users to easily view US state cannabis and DUI laws

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

More information about the report can be found here.

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