Published August 1, 2017|5 min read
Eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and more states are sure to follow suit as American attitudes about pot loosen up. In a recent Gallup poll, 45% of American adults fessed up they’d smoked pot at least once, either legally or illegally. In October 2016, another Gallup poll found that 60% of American adults support legalization of marijuana.
However, many Americans are also concerned about the potential dangers of being high behind the wheel. A 2015 poll taken by Gallup indicated 68% of Americans think marijuana is a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem for U.S. motorists. Thirty percent of those surveyed said they think the legalization of marijuana will make U.S. roads a lot less safe. How legalized marijuana affects road safety — and, more specifically, auto insurance — is an issue that will be hazy for a number of years. But evidence is mounting that some marijuana smokers might see their spotless driving records go up in smoke.
A study released in June 2017 by the Highway Loss Data Institute found legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington had led to 3% more insurance claims involving traffic collisions than would have been expected if recreational marijuana hadn’t been legal. To come up with that number, the data institute compared the frequency of collision claims in Colorado, Oregon and Washington with the frequency in neighboring states.
The study took into account claims filed from 2012 through 2016. “There is mixed evidence about the effects of smoking marijuana and driving,” says Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an affiliate of the Highway Loss Data Institute. “However, our study is an early warning that crash risk may be going up in the states that have legalized recreational use,” Rader adds. “The fact is that when you’re impaired, you’re impaired, and you shouldn’t get behind the wheel — whether it’s impairment from marijuana or alcohol.”
While American drivers have been warned about the dangers of drinking and driving for years, the phenomenon of smoking pot and driving is relatively new. “People know they shouldn’t drink and drive,” Rader says. “Now we’re beginning to see evidence coming together that smoking pot doesn’t mix with the road, either.” Indeed, a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed the number of fatal crashes involving drivers who’d recently used marijuana more than doubled in Washington after the state legalized weed in 2012. The study covered crashes that occurred from 2010 to 2014.
According to Rader, getting a grasp of how marijuana impairs driving is trickier than you might think. For instance, he says, there’s no agreed-upon formula for what constitutes driving under the influence of marijuana, whereas there’s an established formula for what constitutes driving under the influence of alcohol.
Another roadblock: Among the states, drug testing of drivers killed in car crashes is inconsistent, Rader says, and drivers often combine drug and alcohol use, making it difficult to isolate the effects. Rader says his organization has launched a follow-up study in Oregon to examine marijuana use and the risk of being injured in a car wreck.
As researchers continue to study the connection between smoking pot and driving, uncertainty remains about the link between marijuana use and auto insurance rates. “Car insurance companies are certainly watching closely to see if pot usage may eventually become a relevant factor for setting rates. But it will take more research and legislation before a correlation is determined,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of communications at the industry-supported Insurance Information Institute.
As explained by Worters, if you’re involved in a car wreck when you’re high, your auto insurance rates might go up, but not because you’d been smoking weed. Instead, it’s because you crashed your car. Worters adds that auto insurance rates typically don’t rise after one car crash – unless you were driving drunk, speeding or engaging in other risky behavior. In some states, your auto insurance premiums might increase significantly over several years if you’re convicted of driving under the influence (DUI), which can include driving while high, Worters says.
Also, your policy could be canceled altogether, forcing you to buy costly SR-22 coverage. SR-22 coverage is often required for drivers who’ve had serious run-ins with traffic cops.
As it stands now, state standards for determining marijuana-related DUIs are all over the map, whereas states have set a consistent blood alcohol level of 0.08 as adult drivers’ legal limit for an alcohol-related DUI. In 2016, AAA called on state lawmakers around the U.S. to abandon their “arbitrary” legal limits for driving while high in favor of “consistent, strong and fair enforcement measures.” “There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol,” Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “In the case of marijuana,” he said, “this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research.
It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of the drug in their body.” Instead, AAA suggests states require a positive test for recent marijuana use and behavioral and physiological evidence of driver impairment to determine whether a they are under the influence. For now, however, the future of marijuana’s effect on drivers and subsequently car insurance rates remain up in the air. However, you can learn more about how marijuana can affect your life insurance rates here.
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