Study: Legal cannabis did not increase the number of fatal car accidents
A recent statistical analysis by the publication Quartz Advisors found that the number of traffic fatalities decreased or remained constant after states passed recreational cannabis laws. The analysis, which focused on four states that legalized marijuana in 2016, compared accidental deaths in those states to the national average, as well as to five states where cannabis remained illegal.
Contrary to the narrative that legalization could lead to increased road hazards, researchers found that traffic fatalities did not increase in the three years after legalization.
Could legalizing cannabis increase the number of fatal accidents?
While advocates push to reclassify, decriminalize, or legalize cannabis, their opponents often claim that more legal cannabis would lead to more traffic deaths. However, research has shown that cannabis can slightly impair the ability to drive, especially in people who do not use cannabis regularly.
However, research has not found a conclusive connection between legalization and the increase in fatal accidents. Statistical analysis from Quartz Advisors – a business consulting group that provides evidence-based analysis – examined whether this concern is based on real data.
…they examined four states that all fully legalized cannabis in 2016: California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.
Using data on fatal car accidents in the United States from the National Safety Council, Quartz researchers looked for a positive association between these numbers and cannabis legalization. To do this, they examined four states that had all fully legalized cannabis in 2016: California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. They then compared traffic fatalities in those states to both the national average and five states where cannabis remained illegal after 2016: Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Taking driving under the influence seriously: What does science say?
At first glance, an increased risk of death
At first, it seemed like Quartz had found evidence to support the claims of legalization opponents. Between 2016 and 2021, researchers found a 6% increase in traffic fatalities in states with legal cannabis, compared to a 0.7% decrease in states where cannabis remained illegal.
But after reviewing the anomalies that occurred in the first two years of the COVID pandemic – 2020 and 2021 – they found that the data painted a completely different picture.
2020 and 2021 have been strange years for all types of data. The pandemic has altered our normal patterns and altered many aspects of daily life; We need to consider how this distorted the comparative data. This certainly applies to the number of traffic deaths, which increased by 18.9% across the United States during these years. Because of this anomaly, Quartz researchers decided to look at the three years after legalization separately from the COVID-affected numbers.
As a result, the data looked completely different. None of the four states that legalized cannabis saw an increase in traffic fatalities during that time. In fact, traffic fatalities in these states fell by an average of 11.6% in the three years following legalization. Maine showed no change after legalization, while Massachusetts saw the largest decrease in traffic fatalities: 28.9% fewer traffic fatalities.
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That number represented a larger decline than the national average of 10.6% during that time. Significantly, the states that did not legalize it saw a 1.7% increase in traffic fatalities over the same period.
Legalizing cannabis hasn’t increased the number of fatal accidents… but that’s not a drunk driving license
Although these data do not support the assumption that legal cannabis will increase traffic fatalities, they are also limited in scope: they do not take into account all states that have adopted legal cannabis and only consider the three years immediately following legalization.
Still, its conclusions are consistent with other, broader research studies, such as this 2022 Canadian report designed to inform the insurance industry. This report found no reason to change the models insurance companies use to predict traffic accidents after decriminalization and no statistically significant changes in Canada or in U.S. states that have legalized cannabis.
Finally, we cannot emphasize enough that this data does not suggest that driving under the influence of cannabis is safe. Many studies have found that cannabis can impair your ability to drive (although some studies have also found that, unlike alcohol, cannabis impairment tends to lead to less risky behavior).
People under the influence of cannabis may drive slower and keep their distance from other cars – even if this affects their coordination and vision functions. This can reduce the likelihood of dangerous accidents while under the influence of cannabis. Alcohol, on the other hand, despite being completely legal in the United States, is still a factor in almost a third of all traffic deaths.
The authors of this analysis put their conclusion in the simplest terms: Among the possible concerns that could be raised about the illegality of cannabis, they wrote: “The impact that legal marijuana could have on road safety should not be among these concerns. “
So what was the cause of these traffic fatalities during the COVID-19 crisis?
Speeding. According to Reuters: “As U.S. roads became less crowded during the pandemic, some drivers found police less likely to issue tickets, experts said, likely leading to riskier behavior on the roads.”
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported in 2023 that speeding caused nearly one in three traffic fatalities, reaching a 14-year high in 2021. Take it slow this holiday season, Leafly Nation. Better to be late than not at all.