DUI of Marijuana Not as Dangerous as DUI of Alcohol, NHTSA Says

A new study shows that drivers who have smoked marijuana may not be as dangerous as those that have consumed alcohol.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released a study which compared crash rates among drivers who had marijuana in their system and those that had alcohol in their system. The study showed that drunk drivers are far more likely to be involved in a crash than "stoned" drivers, and those that had smoked marijuana weren't significantly more likely to be involved in a crash than sober drivers.

The study looked at vehicle accidents in Virginia Beach, VA over a 20-month period in 2013 and 2014 and recorded information on all of those drivers who tested positive for THC, the active drug in marijuana. They also recorded information on those who tested positive for alcohol. When adjusting demographic factors such as age and gender, NHTSA found that there was no increase in the crash risk associated with marijuana use.

However, the study found that drivers who had a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08% had about 4 times the risk of crashing as sober drivers. Drivers who had a .15% BAC had a 12 times greater risk of crashing.

Why is this important? Consider the penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana in Pennsylvania. We have a 3-tier DUI system; the first tier has the least severe penalties, while the third tier has the most severe penalties. Marijuana use will automatically put you in the third tier. A BAC of .08% will put you in the first tier, and a .15% BAC will put you in the second tier. So, the most dangerous behavior, according to this study, will result in less severe penalties than a behavior that is apparently not as dangerous.

Obviously, there are limits to the study and more research needs to be done. To that end, NHTSA will be conducting more studies on the effects of marijuana on driving, including one study in Washington, where marijuana use is legal. They also plan a study on how drivers who have smoked marijuana behave behind the wheel.

A second study was also released by NHTSA which showed that the number of people driving with alcohol in their system had decreased, but the number of people driving with marijuana or some other drug in their system had increased.

"Researchers have developed a deep body of knowledge about the link between drinking, driving and risk. We know drunk driving kills," NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. "The combined message of these two surveys is that our work to understand and combat drunk driving is paying off, but that we have much to learn about how illegal drugs and prescription medicines affect highway safety - and that developing that knowledge is urgent, because more and more drivers have these drugs in their systems."

It remains to be seen if the results of any of these studies will have an effect on DUI laws. The upcoming studies should be an interesting addition in the never-ending DUI and marijuana debate.

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