The Problems with AAA's Study on Cannabis and Traffic Safety

By David Jenison

The Problems with AAA's Study on Cannabis and Traffic Safety

Last month, the American Automobile Association (AAA) officially endorsed cannabis prohibition, suggesting its members vote against the ballot initiatives that would legalize recreational cannabis in up to five states. The recommendation stemmed from analysis by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that looked at automobile accidents in Washington state. Per the study, the number of fatal car crashes involving cannabis doubled after legalization, and the prohibition endorsement noted that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can negatively impact concentration, coordination and overall cognition. 

“We have a genuine traffic safety concern related to the legalization of recreational marijuana use,” wrote AAA, later adding the tired old refrain, “More studies are needed before making such a far-reaching policy change that could have unintended, but tragic, consequences for traffic safety.”

Why should this argument be considered the same old drug war nonsense? We will dive into the study data in a moment, but the basis upon which AAA endorsed prohibition is biased nonsense because it does not apply to any other risky behavior ever, even to a substantially lesser degree. Consider this: AAA endorsed a costly, full scale, socially unjust, racially biased prohibition applied in all instances regardless of driving, walking or private home use because some studies suggest it might increase driving risks. If AAA applied this logic equally to other much-riskier behaviors, the American public would go apeshit. 

For example, the National Safety Council estimates that texting while driving causes 1.6 million automobile accidents each year, while the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says texting causes a 23-fold increase in the risk of accidents. To put this in perspective, a driver is six times more likely to cause an accident while texting than when drunk. Texting behind the wheel is astronomically more dangerous than driving after cannabis consumption, so the logic in AAA’s prohibition endorsement would suggest that the country should make all texting—whether behind the wheel or in the privacy of your home—a criminal offense that lands people behind the bars. 

Studies suggest that texting causes 23 percent of all accidents, but speeding is even worse. Per 2012 data from the Department of Transportation, breaking the speed limit is responsible for more than 30 percent of all traffic-related fatalities, with alcohol impairment accounting for a similar percentage. If speeding and drinking are worse than texting, AAA’s logic would dictate a reinstatement of alcohol prohibition and that all speed limit violations result in prison time, often generating a criminal record that will dramatically dry up employment opportunities. In fact, a Lytx study in 2014 found that eating behind the wheel increases the risk of accidents by nearly fourfold, so clearly we should ban all drive-throughs. 

Nonsense, right? So why then does it make sense to maintain a full-scale, criminal prohibition on cannabis because some studies—but not all—suggest it might impair driving? 

To be clear, PRØHBTD does not endorse driving stoned. For certain individuals, cannabis use arguably does impair their driving ability, and they should not drive high. However, the answer to this potential risk is not making everyone a criminal who smokes, vapes or eats an edible regardless of whether or not they get behind the wheel. Rather, take the millions made from cannabis tax revenue to educate consumers on the risks and develop technologies to assess cannabis-related impairment more accurately. The latter is a valid issue, but the tax revenue can provide the resources to address it. Moreover, why not put some of the tax money toward expanding public transit as well, which could reduce traffic fatalities overall. 

Now let’s talk about the data which provided the basis for AAA’s prohibition endorsement. For starters, AAA wrote, “Research results are mixed, but some studies have found that using marijuana as much as doubles a driver’s risk of crashing.” As the first line suggests, other studies show the opposite. For example, a 2002 Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs noted, “Cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving,” while a 1999 study by the Toronto: Center for Addiction and Mental Health found that people under the influence of cannabis tend to drive more cautiously, stating that “the more cautious behavior of subjects who have received marijuana decreases the impact of the drug on performance, whereas the opposite holds true for alcohol.”

In regard to the fatality data in Washington state, AAA also admitted, “The data analyzed for the study did not include enough information to determine which driver was at fault in a given crash.” Moreover, only one-third of the accidents referenced in the study involved cannabis alone. In two-thirds of the accidents, the driver who consumed cannabis had also taken other drugs and/or alcohol, so even if the stoned driver was also high on heroin and drunk as hell, the accident counts against cannabis. 

Another argument in favor of prohibition was the inability to assess the driver’s level of cannabis-related impairment, if any. AAA wrote, “Frequent users can exhibit persistent blood active-THC long after active use.” This too calls the statistics into question because even AAA admits that THC levels can remain in the blood long after use, which suggests that the presence of THC in a person’s body does not necessarily mean impairment or that the individual even consumed cannabis that day. 

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides more transparent caveats when it comes to cannabis-related driving statistics. The site’s Impaired Driving: Get the Facts noted in 2016 that “marijuana users were about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash... [but] other factors—such as age and gender—may account for the increased crash risk among marijuana users.” In other words, cannabis use is more common among young males, a demographic that claims a higher accident rate overall, which might account for the difference in accident rates compared to, say, middle-aged women. Considering the CDC questions the validity of its own statistic, most people would hopefully agree that such an uncertain statistic does not justify throwing people in jail for smoking cannabis in the privacy of their own homes, which is what AAA is ultimately endorsing. 

Since it was founded in Los Angeles nearly 120 years ago, AAA has done a lot of good raising awareness about drunk driving, lobbying for improved safety standards and educating drivers on general road safety. Unlike with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it is reasonable to suggest that AAA endorsed prohibition with public safety in mind, but much of their logic is based on outdated propaganda and Drug War fallacies. To whatever extent cannabis might increase traffic risk—which pales in comparison to texting, eating, drinking and speeding—the answer is to use cannabis-related tax revenue to educate, innovate and create solutions. The answer is not to maintain an unjust prohibition that packs prisons, ruins lives, denies holistic medicine, removes an alcohol/drug alternative and corrupts law enforcement through money-grabbing forfeiture laws.  

AAA might have meant well, but their prohibition endorsement is both misguided and extremely dangerous. 

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