Recreational Marijuana Legalization: Is Driving More Dangerous In States With Legal Weed?

Recreational marijuana legalization has potentially been linked to increased car accidents. According to insurance research group The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), auto crash claims are higher in states with legalized recreational weed. However, another recently published study that analyzed the number of traffic accident fatalities, concludes the opposite.

Data published late last week revealed insurance claims have gone up nearly three percent in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon since recreational cannabis became legal, per researchers with HLDI. Colorado and Washington approved recreational marijuana in 2014, with Oregon legalizing it a year later.

"More drivers admit to using marijuana, and it is showing up more frequently among people involved in crashes," the researchers wrote in the report, per a Washington Times article.

For the survey, the Highway Loss Data Institute used accident insurance claims made from January 2012 to October 2016. Accounting for several factors such as the number of vehicles on the road, age, and gender of drivers as well as weather, researchers compared the crash data to other states that do not have recreational marijuana legalization laws.

"We believe that the data is saying that crash risk has increased in these states and those crash risks are associated with the legalization of marijuana," said Matt Moore, senior vice president with HLDI, as cited by the Chicago Tribune.

Does legal cannabis create more insurance claims.
New study suggests legalized marijuana leads to more traffic problems. [Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

While the study puts some of the blame on marijuana legalization for increased traffic accidents, even insurance companies admit there may be other factors at work. Distracted driving through texting and cell phone use, road construction, and more people behind the wheel are likely contributing to the higher number.

"It would be difficult to say that marijuana is a definitive factor, lacking a citation, in a significant number of crashes to say that what we're seeing here is a trend," noted Kenton Brine, president of the Northwest Insurance Council, a group that represents insurance companies in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Also released last week, a separate study looked at the number of motor vehicle accidents that resulted in a death to determine if marijuana legalization made a difference. By examining data from the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System, researchers compared the number of traffic fatalities from 2009 to 2015 in Colorado and Washington to car crash-related deaths occurring in eight other states that do not allow recreational marijuana.

Traffic accident death did not increase in states with legal cannabis.
Recent study cannot find link between smoking legal weed and traffic accident deaths. [Image by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images]

Per the study published in American Journal of Public Health, researchers did not find any definitive difference in the number of fatalities between states with legalized weed versus states where the plant remains illegal.

"Three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization."
Interestingly, statistics provided by the state of Colorado did not agree with the study. According to data released by the Colorado Department of Transportation, car accident deaths increased 11 percent in 2016, a year not included in the traffic fatality study.

In the end, the studies did not absolutely conclude if recreational marijuana legalization increases car crash fatalities or auto insurance claims. Yet, both did bring attention to public safety issues that may need addressing as the possibility of more impaired drivers getting behind the wheel becomes a reality.

[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]