With the increasing number of states legalizing recreational marijuana, it is crucial not to overlook the potential dangers associated with its consumption. Driving under the influence of marijuana presents its own set of risks that motorists should be aware of.
When people think of impaired drivers, they often assume alcohol intoxication is involved. While alcohol remains the most common form of impairment behind the wheel, it is not the only substance abused while driving.
Marijuana poses a significant concern as well. It affects both physical and cognitive functions, leading to slowed reaction times and impaired judgment in drivers. With the expanding legalization of cannabis and its growing usage across various demographics, understanding its impact on driving has become more important than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 18 percent of Americans reported using marijuana at least once in 2019. It is crucial for these individuals to refrain from consuming marijuana before operating a vehicle.
Many people can use marijuana without experiencing any adverse effects. Similar to alcohol, responsible and moderate cannabis consumption is possible. In fact, marijuana can provide relief for various health issues, particularly for individuals who do not respond well to conventional treatment options.
However, problems arise when marijuana is used before or during activities that demand full energy and attention, such as driving. Driving under the influence of marijuana poses significant risks.
Drowsiness stands out as one of the most concerning effects of marijuana impairment on safe driving. Falling asleep at the wheel can lead to catastrophic accidents, as drowsy drivers tend to focus more on staying awake rather than being fully aware and alert on the road.
Driving While High vs. Driving Drunk
Driving under the influence of any substance is inherently dangerous, but the specific risks associated with marijuana differ from those linked to alcohol. While alcohol impairment tends to lead to aggressive behavior on the road, marijuana users are more prone to becoming drowsy or distracted.
The level of distraction largely depends on the frequency of cannabis consumption. Surprising findings from a study in Traffic Injury Prevention suggest that regular marijuana users are more likely to perform well on distracted driving tests "after acute cannabis smoking" compared to occasional users.
However, regular marijuana use poses greater dangers for young individuals. Research indicates that those who begin consuming cannabis before the age of 16 are more likely to exhibit poor performance in driving tasks conducted in a controlled test setting. Neuroscientist Staci Gruber explains that early exposure to cannabis "appears to create greater difficulty with complex cognitive tasks like driving."
Furthermore, drivers' perceptions of their abilities behind the wheel play a significant role. Individuals who consume cannabis are more likely to recognize their impairment and exhibit less inclination to speed or make sudden lane changes. In contrast, alcohol has the opposite effect, boosting drivers' confidence even when their reaction time and focus are severely compromised.
Often, driving while high or driving drunk is not an either-or situation. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, many people drive under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol simultaneously, significantly increasing the risk of collisions compared to using either substance alone.
Research on the precise prevalence of motor vehicle accidents caused by marijuana versus alcohol remains limited. However, a review of law enforcement data published in PLoS One sheds some light on this comparison. The study reveals that drivers under the influence of alcohol are over 17 times more likely to cause fatal collisions compared to sober drivers, while those impaired by marijuana are nearly twice as likely to be involved in fatal crashes compared to their sober counterparts.