The Rise In Marijuana-Related Traffic Fatalities Post Legalization

Data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that traffic fatalities in the U.S. increased in 2020, surpassing fatal car crashes in 2019 and 2018.

Alcohol impairment is a common factor in fatal motor vehicle crashes, but there’s less public awareness about the influence of other drugs, such as marijuana, on driving ability. 

Marijuana, also known as cannabis, has been legalized for recreational use in 19 states and two U.S. territories. Medical marijuana is now legal in nearly 40 states.

With the expansion in legalization, however, has come concern from some — including the AAA — that this could lead to a rise in marijuana-related traffic accidents and fatalities.

Is Driving Under The Influence Of Marijuana Legal?

No. According to the NHTSA, all states have laws that prohibit driving while under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs, including marijuana.

These laws, which can vary by state, have been on the books for decades. 

Has There Been A Rise In Marijuana-Related Traffic Fatalities?

Federal data does show that a greater percentage of drivers have tested positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) over the years.

In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the percentage of motor vehicle crash fatalities involving cannabis increased from nine percent in 2000 to 21.5 percent in 2018.

The same study also found an increase in fatal crashes tied to the use of both alcohol and marijuana, also known as multidrug use or polysubstance use. 

Is There A Connection Between Legalizing Marijuana And Fatal Crashes?

Alcohol-related car accidents did increase in 2020 (the latest available data). However, the connection between the legalization of marijuana and fatal crashes is less clear.

While cannabis use can impair a person’s driving skills, there’s little evidence that marijuana legalization is directly tied to a higher number of fatal traffic crashes.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2017, for instance, found that crash rates in states that had legalized recreational marijuana were similar to those that had not.

That study specifically compared crash fatality rates in Colorado and the state of Washington — both of which have fully legalized marijuana — with those of eight control states between 2009 and 2015.

What Are The Effects Of Marijuana On Driving?

Early evidence from recent studies on marijuana legalization has not shown a clear connection between marijuana laws legalizing the drug and a rise in marijuana-related traffic deaths.

However, it’s important to understand the effects of the recreational use of marijuana that can impair your ability to operate a vehicle safely on the road. It can be a risk factor for a crash.

Research shows that marijuana use may affect:

  • concentration
  • reaction times
  • balance
  • hazard perception
  • cognitive function
  • impulse control

Marijuana can also have effects on vision. Use of other drugs with marijuana — alcohol, for instance — can pose an even greater hazard on the road and should be avoided prior to driving.

Is It Safe To Drive After Using Marijuana?

Generally, no. Like with drunk driving, it’s not recommended that you operate a motor vehicle after using marijuana, other illicit drugs, and/or certain prescription drugs.

Alcohol use is also dangerous if you plan to drive.

If you use medical marijuana for a medical or mental health condition, consider talking to your doctor about whether it’s safe to drive a vehicle while receiving your treatment.

Potential risks and dangers of driving while under the influence of marijuana include:

  • motor vehicle crash
  • accidental injury
  • accidental death of yourself, a passenger, or another person on the road
  • driving under the influence (DUI) charge

Using drugs and driving, despite potential dangers, can be a sign of drug abuse, particularly if this is a behavior that occurs more than once.

How Common Is Marijuana Abuse?

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug. Although it’s not as addictive as some other drugs — for instance, opioids or cocaine — it can become a drug of misuse.

In 2020, roughly 14 million Americans aged 12 and older had past-year marijuana use disorder, according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Get Help For Marijuana Abuse 


At Bedrock Recovery Center, our treatment team understands that it can be difficult to admit you have a problem and to seek help. 

From our Massachusetts treatment center, we offer a range of substance abuse treatment programs, including treatment options for marijuana misuse and addiction.

For more information about Bedrock’s treatment options for marijuana abuse, call our helpline to speak with an admissions specialist today.

  1. American Journal of Public Health — Crash Fatality Rates After Recreational Marijuana Legalization in Washington and Colorado
  2. American Journal of Public Health — Trends in Cannabis Involvement and Risk of Alcohol Involvement in Motor Vehicle Crash Fatalities in the United States, 2000–2018
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 NSDUH
  4. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — Marijuana-Impaired Driving: A Report to Congress
  5. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — Quick Facts 2020

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

Published on: August 10, 2022

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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