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August 5, 2014

Notable discussion of traffic fatalities in Colorado after marijuana legalization

Radley Balko has this notable new Washington Post piece headlined "Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows." The full piece merits a full read for those thinking about the potential public safety impact of marijuana, and here are excerpts:

It makes sense that loosening restrictions on pot would result in a higher percentage of drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents having smoked the drug at some point over the past few days or weeks. You’d also expect to find that a higher percentage of churchgoers, good Samaritans and soup kitchen volunteers would have pot in their system. You’d expect a similar result among any large sampling of people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that marijuana caused or was even a contributing factor to accidents, traffic violations or fatalities.

This isn’t an argument that pot wasn’t a factor in at least some of those accidents, either. But that’s precisely the point. A post-accident test for marijuana metabolites doesn’t tell us much at all about whether pot contributed to the accident....

It seems to me that the best way to gauge the effect legalization has had on the roadways is to look at what has happened on the roads since legalization took effect.... [R]oadway fatalities this year are down from last year, and down from the 13-year average. Of the seven months so far this year, five months saw a lower fatality figure this year than last, two months saw a slightly higher figure this year, and in one month the two figures were equal....

What’s notable here is that the totals so far in 2014 are closer to the safest composite year since 2002 than to the average year since 2002. I should also add here that these are total fatalities. If we were to calculate these figures as a rate — say, miles driven per fatality — the drop would be starker, both for this year and since Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2001. While the number of miles Americans drive annually has leveled off nationally since the mid-2000s, the number of total miles traveled continues to go up in Colorado. If we were to measure by rate, then, the state would be at lows unseen in decades.

The figures are similar in states that have legalized medical marijuana. While some studies have shown that the number of drivers involved in fatal collisions who test positive for marijuana has steadily increased as pot has become more available, other studies have shown that overall traffic fatalities in those states have dropped. Again, because the pot tests only measure for recent pot use, not inebriation, there’s nothing inconsistent about those results....

Of course, the continuing drop in roadway fatalities, in Colorado and elsewhere, is due to a variety of factors, such as better-built cars and trucks, improved safety features and better road engineering. These figures in and of themselves only indicate that the roads are getting safer; they don’t suggest that pot had anything to do with it. We’re also only seven months in. Maybe these figures will change. Finally, it’s also possible that if it weren’t for legal pot, the 2014 figures would be even lower. There’s no real way to know that. We can only look at the data available. But you can bet that if fatalities were up this year, prohibition supporters would be blaming it on legal marijuana.

August 5, 2014 at 11:07 PM | Permalink

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