By Rick Berman
August 20, 2018
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently launched their “Drive high, get a DUI” campaign to educate the public about the dangers of drug impaired driving.
The announcement is welcome as marijuana use is becoming increasingly common across the country – not to mention around the world. Currently, nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. An additional 20 allow the substance for “medicinal” purposes – made available to most anyone claiming back pain or nausea. And in October, Canada will become the first country of the world’s major economic powers to legalize the drug.
Although a majority of Americans support this liberalization of drug policies, it’s not without unintended consequences. Alcohol sales have already shown a decline in areas where medical marijuana has been legalized – signaling that a substitution effect does exist between the two products. But more notably, concerning traffic safety, there’s been an uptick in drug-impaired drivers.
For states that have already moved forward with legalization, the consequences are becoming apparent. The Colorado experience -which legalized the drug in 2014 – is instructive.
According to an investigation by the Denver Post, drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana between 2013 and 2016 increased by 145 percent. A more recent report from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice confirms that concern. Drivers charged with a DUI that were screened for marijuana tested positive for the drug 73 percent of the time.
The United States is also experiencing an opioid epidemic. Since 1995, the percent of fatal traffic crashes involving prescription narcotics has gone through the roof – rising fivefold for men and sevenfold for women.
All this – coupled with the persistent problem of distracted driving by cell phones, texting, etc., that was responsible for well-over 3,000 deaths in 2016 – has resulted in the perfect storm.
How will we confront these growing threats before past gains in highway safety are overwhelmed by these relatively new ones? One answer is to redeploy attention and resources to those issues that reflect traffic realities. Thus far, safety officials have remained largely focused on alcohol as the main culprit behind roadway fatalities.
In the 1970s, alcohol was overrepresented in accident causation. No one had a cell phone and marijuana wasn’t broadly available. MADD and government agencies spawned decades of public education campaigns and legislative initiatives aimed at curbing drunk driving. And for the most part, the efforts – reinforced by the alcohol producing and hospitality industries’ responsibility messages – were a wild success. Between the years 1982 and 2015, the number of alcohol-related fatalities per 100,000 Americans dropped by 65 percent. There are few public education campaigns with those bragging rights.
While there’s no doubt that tougher drunk driving laws played a major role in the progress, I would argue the most significant factor was cultural. There now exists a negative stigma around drunk driving that deploys social accountability, rather than the threat of legal consequences. We went from depictions of “funny drunks” to dangerous ones.
But highway threats and their solutions have shifted.
In regard to casual marijuana consumption, we need to funnel resources into the development of roadside breath tests that can quickly and accurately detect impairment – similar to current breathalyzers used for alcohol. Currently, when impairment is suspected of a driver, law enforcement often blames alcohol – even in small amounts – because it’s the only substance they can detect. This misdiagnoses hides the true extent of the problem. That default accusation can also present obvious legal consequences for restaurants and bars that are subject to dram shop laws. (Notice: Some are clients of my firm).
Most importantly, the crux of a successful challenge to drugged driving will take place in the cultural arena. Through the use of multifaceted public relations and education campaigns, Americans of all ages need to be convinced that drugged driving is a danger to themselves and everyone around them. Those who suggest that drugged driving is less dangerous than drunk driving are in denial. A recent statewide report in Washington – the other state to legalize recreational use in 2014 – shows that more than half of drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who admit to driving under the influence of marijuana believe it enhances their driving abilities.
Despite the facts there will be too many in the public policy business who are emotionally and financially invested in the alcohol wars. Redeployed money for government grants to do research are only one of the risks to those who benefit from maintaining the current alcohol policy trajectory. These people may be the greatest threat to safety as they seek to deny needed refocusing of limited resources.
There is an old trial lawyers’ saying “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” I expect there will be plenty of table pounding for some time to come but the facts should eventually win out. And we will all be safer for the changes.
Rick Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.