How to report on drugged driving

February 24, 2014
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These articles are from last week, but I didn’t get a chance to comment on them then.

In recent years there has been an explosion in reporting on “drugged driving.” (I have my own news filter on that term.) Most of this reporting has been over-the-top exploitative fear-mongering; most of it has been really aimed at marijuana (instead of all drugged driving as it purports); and all of it has been driven by an obsession of the ONDCP to find a back-door way to demonize and extra-criminalize marijuana.

I have consistently pushed back against this effort because I think it is dangerous in a number of ways (even managed to force the drug czar to shut up about it once), and sometimes I have been counseled by other drug policy reformers to be careful about it because the public isn’t going to respond well to the notion that driving while stoned is safe.

But of course, driving isn’t safe. But it’s relatively safe. Your odds of getting in an accident are fairly low, particularly if you’re smart about it. So when you see reporting of an unconfirmed study that says marijuana intoxication doubles your changes of an accident, that’s still pretty low — especially when being intoxicated on alcohol increases your changes of an accident by 15 or 20 times.

Again, this doesn’t mean you should drive when impaired on anything, but it means that getting all panicky about marijuana-impaired drivers causing Armageddon on the highways, and focusing law enforcement efforts on criminalizing anyone with any amount of metabolites in their blood, is really bad public policy.

So it’s nice to see some slightly more fact-based reporting starting to surface, particularly in the New York Times: Driving Under the Influence, of Marijuana by Maggie Koerth-Baker:

“And there’s always somebody who says, ‘I drive better while high.’ ”

Evidence suggests that is not the case. But it also suggests that we may not have as much to fear from stoned driving as from drunken driving. Some researchers say that limited resources are better applied to continuing to reduce drunken driving. Stoned driving, they say, is simply less dangerous. [...]

The study’s lead author, Eduardo Romano, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that once he adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana did not statistically increase the risk of a crash.

“Despite our results, I still think that marijuana contributes to crash risk,” he said, “only that its contribution is not as important as it was expected.”

The difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things, Dr. Huestis and Dr. Romano both say. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones, and they have different deficits. Drunken drivers tend to drive faster than normal and to overestimate their skills, studies have shown; the opposite is true for stoned drivers.

Thanks to the New York Times. Also doing good reporting on this on a regular basis is Jacob Sullum.

Here, on the other hand, is NBC with fact-free fear mongering: Pot Fuels Surge in Drugged Driving Deaths

“Nobody will take this seriously until somebody loses another loved one.”

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Pete Guither is the editor of drugwarrant.com

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