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AAA: Legalizing marijuana likely to increase drugged driving

Op-ed: AAA opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Md. because of drugged driving

As state legislators consider a proposal to give Marylanders a say in whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018, we hope the lawmakers will seriously consider the impact such a measure could have on the safety of our roadways. With an increasing number of impaired drivers "high" on our highways, it is important that the state not contribute to this disturbing and dangerous trend.

Driving under the influence of drugs is an active and real threat to motorists, passengers and pedestrians — and more prevalent than we may think. According to the 2013-2014 National Roadside Survey from the National Traffic Safety Highway Administration (NHTSA), drug use among night-time weekend drivers has increased nationwide by 25 percent since 2007, when the last survey was conducted. The drug showing the greatest spike was marijuana, with an increase of 48 percent.

Here in Maryland, drug recognition experts arrested and charged 193 motorists with driving while impaired by marijuana in 2015. This was nearly double the number from 2012, when 97 motorists were arrested for marijuana impairment. Legalization of the drug would arguably increase impaired driving arrests and fatalities.

Drivers who are killed in crashes and test positive for marijuana are up to six and a half times more likely than others to cause collisions, according to NHTSA. Research shows that marijuana can seriously impair a driver's handling ability, performance and attention behind the wheel. Even more frightening, the mixing of alcohol and marijuana can increase impairment more than consuming either by itself.

Recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research found that fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana more than doubled — from 8 percent to 17 percent –— in Washington, just one year after the state legalized the drug for recreational purposes. This translates to one in six drivers involved in fatal crashes testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. These findings are particularly troubling because the proportion of fatal crashes involving marijuana in Washington had remained relatively stable between 2010 and 2013, and they present an eye-opening example of what could happen in Maryland if the drug is legalized here.

Unfortunately, most states are not fully prepared to handle the increasing plague of drugged driving. That is largely because there is no easy roadside test for law enforcement to use in determining whether a driver is impaired by marijuana. Unlike alcohol, marijuana does not have a specific reliable limit to determine impairment, posing a serious challenge for law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

As an advocate for the safety of motorists, AAA is troubled by the safety implications of individuals using marijuana and getting behind the wheel. This danger cannot be underestimated. Quality data and research regarding the scope of the problem and its solutions are woefully lacking. More importantly, there is not sufficient scientific data to provide motorists with guidance on the use of the drug in a way that does not impact their ability to drive safely.

Strengthening impaired driving laws, not weakening them, and improving testing for drugged driving are important steps to combating it. The most important requirement for safer roads, however, is a well-informed public that recognizes the signs and dangers of impaired driving. Motorists must be willing to look closely at themselves and those around them to ensure that no one who's driving is impaired by drugs, legal or otherwise, alcohol or anything else. It has taken many years to change attitudes about drinking and driving, and we must now begin the same process of educating the public about drugged driving.

AAA opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use because of its negative traffic safety implications and the current challenges in discerning and addressing marijuana-impaired driving. Legalizing marijuana before we are prepared to manage the potential highway safety consequences, and provide law enforcement officers with all the training and resources they need to address this issue is irresponsible and dangerous.

While some have compared the efforts to legalize marijuana and the revenues it would generate to the legalization of casinos in Maryland, there is really no comparison. The legalization of marijuana for recreational use, even if revenues are dedicated to education, is a gamble on public safety we cannot afford to take.

Until these issues can be resolved, legalizing marijuana in our state is a road sign for disaster and one that will undoubtedly increase the already growing trend of impaired driving and fatalities on our roadways.

Ragina Cooper Averella is AAA Mid-Atlantic's public and government affairs manager in Maryland and a former Baltimore Police officer. She can be reached at rcooper-averella@aaamidatlantic.com.

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