Pubdate: Tue, 02 Sep 2014
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Associated Press
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Joan Lowy, Associated Press


Officials Worry Traffic Deaths Will Increase As Legalization Spreads

WASHINGTON (AP) - As states liberalize their marijuana laws, public 
officials and safety advocates worry that more drivers high on pot 
will lead to a big increase in traffic deaths. Researchers, though, 
are divided on the question.

Studies of marijuana's effects show that the drug can slow 
decision-making, decrease peripheral vision and impede multi-tasking, 
all of which are critical driving skills. But unlike with alcohol, 
drivers high on pot tend to be aware that they are impaired and try 
to compensate by driving slowly, avoiding risky actions such as 
passing other cars, and allowing extra room between vehicles.

On the other hand, combining marijuana with alcohol appears to 
eliminate the pot smoker's exaggerated caution and seems to increase 
driving impairment beyond the effects of either substance alone.

"We see the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington as a 
wake-up call for all of us in highway safety," said Jonathan Adkins, 
executive director of Governors Highway Safety Association.

"We don't know enough about the scope of marijuana-impaired driving 
to call it a big or small problem. But anytime a driver has their 
ability impaired, it is a problem."

Colorado and Washington are the only states that allow retail sales 
of marijuana for recreational use. Twenty-three states and the 
nation's capital permit marijuana use for medical purposes. States 
vary on their allowable intoxication levels and on testing of drivers 
involved in crashes.

What worries highway safety experts are cases like that of New York 
teenager Joseph Beer, who in October 2012 smoked marijuana, climbed 
into a car with four friends and drove more than 100 mph before 
losing control. The car crashed into trees with such force that the 
vehicle split in half, killing his friends.

Beer pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and was 
sentenced to 5 years to 15 years in prison.

A prosecutor blamed the crash on "speed and weed," but a Yale 
University Medical School expert on drug abuse who testified at the 
trial said studies of marijuana and crash risk are "highly 
inconclusive." Some studies show a two-or threefold increase, while 
others show none, said Dr. Mehmet Sofuoglu.

"If states legalize marijuana, they must set clear limits for 
impairment behind the wheel and require mandatory drug testing 
following a crash," said Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the 
National Transportation Safety Board. "Right now we have a patchwork 
system across the nation regarding mandatory drug testing following 
highway crashes."
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