Study: Alcohol Far More Common than Drugs to Blame in Fatal Car Crashes

While lawmakers across the nation scramble to find more ways to criminalize marijuana, even as laws are changing to free it up, they often discuss the dangers of people using marijuana and getting behind the wheel.

But a new study suggests that shouldn’t be their top concern in reducing the number of auto accidents. Drug impairment is far less common than alcohol impairment in fatal car wrecks.

According to the study published online in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, alcohol was fare more prevalent in the blood of drivers killed in traffic crashes between 2008 and 2011. In comparison, only a fraction had illegal drugs in their systems.

“Not surprisingly, the legal drug alcohol topped the list of psychoactive substances identified in blood samples from fatally injured drivers, which confirms results and surveys done in other nations. … Indeed, in 76 percent of fatalities the autopsy BAC was over 1.0 g/L, which gives convincing evidence that these drivers were impaired at the time of the crash,” said the researchers.

few car accidents from marijuanaCompared to the 76% of drivers who had elevated blood alcohol levels, only 2.5% had illicit drugs in their system. About 8% had prescription drugs in them.

This isn’t the first study to show that marijuana may not be such a detriment to road safety. One published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention last year reported that cannabis and other drugs were only associated with a “small or moderate increase in accident risk,” according to NORML.

As a matter of fact, cannabis was shown to elevate accident risk at about the same rate as penicillin, an antibiotic:

“… it was concluded that cannabis was associated with minor, but not dramatically increased odds of traffic injury (1.06) or fatal accident (1.25). Anti-histamines (1.12) and penicillin (1.12) were associated with comparable odds to cannabis. “Compared to the huge increase in accident risk associated with alcohol, as well as the high accident rate among young drivers, the increases in risk associated with the use of drugs are surprisingly small,” the author of the study concluded.”

There is no evidence that drugged driving laws reduce traffic deaths. None. Still states have passed and continue to pass more stringent drugged driving laws in an effort to combat negative attitudes towards marijuana legalization and the increasingly liberal attitude towards pot.

Even the federal agency in charge of traffic safety, the NHTSA, says, “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects. … It is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone.”

Yet even though we have seen that Driving under the Influence of Marijuana laws are useless, states still hope to use the 5 ng THC standard to prosecute people for “driving while high”.

While citing these studies won’t get you out of an arrest when you are suspected of drugged driving or possession of marijuana behind the wheel, they are studies that need to get some serious attention by the same mainstream media that gives credence to concerns that marijuana legalization will make for dangerous highways.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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  • Rita Pastorek

    The problem is that in NYS, has no laws to mandatory test for drugs in fatal accidents. My son was killed as a passenger in a vehicle. Drug paraphernalia was found at the scene. If a law enforcement
    agent does not think you are high, then case closed, they call it no reasonable cause. It invokes the 4th
    amendment. It is a bunch of crap. There is no way a trained law enforcement agent can tell if I just sniffed an 8 ball and went to get a pack of cigarettes and was stopped on the way, or if I just smoked if my eyes are not red. It is sad to say many times drugs are involved and no one knows.
    Rita Pastorek