What Happened to Washington Traffic Accidents Since Legalization? Not Much

August 21, 2017

For decades now, one of the arguments most often used by opponents of marijuana legalization was that it would lead to a rash of automobile accidents and make our already dangerous roads that much more deadly.

Seeing that alcohol-related car crashes are responsible for nearly a third of all traffic fatalities, it’s a valid point to consider. Though those who’ve driven under the influence of marijuana claim it’s safer than even slight alcohol use, a claim supported by years of studies.

But now, a couple of years into cannabis legalization in Washington, a couple of studies shed light on the actual effects of legalization on Washington traffic accidents. And while the findings aren’t crystal-clear—in part owing to the different methodologies and focuses of those studies—one take away they agree on is that by and large, cannabis has not had a significant adverse effect on road safety.  

Comparing Two Studies: More Overall Accidents, or Fewer Traffic Deaths?

One study saw an overall rise in automobile accident insurance claims in states with legal weed. The research, commissioned by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that compared with their neighbors, legal-weed states saw a roughly 3% rise in these claims.

A superficially similar study commissioned by the American Journal of Public Health instead zeroed in on traffic deaths. And rather than comparing cannabis-legal states with their neighboring states, it compared them with states with similar populations and traffic patterns. This study found:

“…no significant association between recreational marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado and subsequent changes in motor vehicle fatality rates in the first three years after recreational marijuana legalization.”

Drawing Conclusions from Two Different Cannabis Studies

Again, because the studies were different in several regards—focusing on different aspects of unsafe driving, and using slightly different baselines for comparison—it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between them.

While the rise in insurance claims is worrisome, the first study doesn’t connect this increase directly with cannabis use. As noted in the second study:

“[W]e also found no association between recreational marijuana legalization and total crash rates when analyzing available state-reported nonfatal crash statistics.”  

Other studies have found a decrease in traffic deaths in areas where marijuana is legal. As reported last December by Reuters, states that legalized cannabis for medical use experienced a decline in traffic deaths, according to a study analyzing data from 1985 to 2014. And this decrease in fatalities was most significant—down 12%—in the 25- to 44-year-old range, a group with a significant percentage of registered medical marijuana users.

Still other, earlier research fails to draw a connection between cannabis and traffic accidents and deaths.

Too Early to Draw Conclusions on Washington Traffic Accidents?

Though we’re fervent supporters of cannabis legalization, we want to analyze this data with unbiased minds. While it’s possible that car crashes (of any severity) have risen in states with legal marijuana, there’s nothing to indicate that more people are dying as a result of cannabis impairment. How’s this for an idea: Let’s all work hard to make sure this downwards trend continues. Now there’s something we can all agree on!  

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