How Much THC Makes You Impaired?
With Washington and Colorado States legalizing marijuana for recreational use, law enforcement tactics are changing. Laws around marijuana have gone from a focus on prohibition to regulation. New laws are being enacted to regulate distribution, taxation, age restrictions, and how much marijuana is reasonable for a person to possess for personal use. One of the more difficult questions to answer is what constitutes legal intoxication and how that correlates to driving while impaired. How stoned is too stoned to drive safely?
Both the Washington and Colorado State Legislatures passed house bills that declare five nanograms as the legal limit for impairment. If a person is pulled over and a blood screen detects five or more nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in a person’s bloodstream, that individual is considered legally under the influence of drugs.
It can be difficult for a person to know when they are too impaired to drive whether from alcohol or marijuana. The main difference for law enforcement is the easy availability of breathalyzer tests to quantify blood alcohol levels and the relative difficulty of imposing a blood test to check for THC levels. Over time, these sorts of dilemmas will be answered by clear laws but we are not there yet. It is important to note that the body of science describing marijuana’s effects on the brain and body is broad but doesn’t enjoy wide consensus. Five nanograms per milliliter is perhaps a place for policy to start but it might be reasonable to expect changes to the law as scientific consensus is reached.
Driving while stoned is a crime in all 50 states but only some have set actual limits for THC in blood levels. It’s important to note that unlike blood alcohol levels, THC levels in the blood do not necessarily have anything to do with impairment. Marijuana is metabolized in the body’s fat cells and can be detected in the blood for as long as three months after last use in frequent pot smokers.
More than a dozen states have implemented “per se” cannabis driving laws that authorize a DUI conviction, without trial, to anyone exceeding the state’s THC blood limit. Most of those states have legal blood THC limits of zero. The federal government has not gotten on board with the decriminalization of marijuana and is still recommending that all states pass zero-tolerance “per se” driving laws.
The remaining/majority of states have effect-based laws that require evidence of impairment from recent ingestion of a controlled substance before a DUI conviction is authorized. See your state’s marijuana driving laws here.
“Per se” cannabis driving laws have not been shown to reduce traffic fatalities, and they may be inadvertently making criminals out of people who are using a controlled substance in a legal manner.
Washington State passed a “per se” driving law and more and more people are testing positive for marijuana since the substance was made legal for recreational use. It should be noted that the boost in numbers may actually be due to more blood tests rather than an increase in drug use.
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Teen Drivers and Fatal Car Crashes
It is widely known and acknowledged that teen drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 years of age cause the most crash and traffic violations of any other age group. In fact, car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers across the United States. The question is why? There are many factors that play into this fact including not understanding consequences to risky driving, lack of experience, high usage of drugs and alcohol, distractions such as a car full of friends, and cell phone usage.
Primary collision factors in fatal car crashes caused by 16-19 year old drivers:
- Unsafe Speed 35.3%
- Right of Way 20.6%
- Improper Turns 14.8%
- Sign/Signal 8.1%
- Alcohol/Drugs 5.1%
- Passing/Lane Change 4.3%
- Wrong Side of Road 3.1%
- *Distracted driving and other 8.7%
*Distracted driving includes texting and driving which is now known to be six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. It has now replaced drinking while driving as the leading cause of car accidents among teenagers.
Teen Drivers Primary Crash Risk Factors
Poor Hazard Detection
It takes time and practice to be able to identify potential hazards on the road. Teen drivers must gain perceptual and information gathering skills over time to be able to identify threats.
Low Risk Perception
Teen drivers have a tendency to underestimate a crash risk in a hazardous situation such as an icy road and overestimate their ability to navigate the hazard.
Teen drivers tend to be overconfident in their abilities and lack an understanding of consequences to risky behaviors like speeding, tailgating, running red lights, violating traffic signs and signals, making illegal turns, passing dangerously, texting while driving, and failure to yield to pedestrians.
Not Wearing Seat Belts
Teenagers have not gotten the message as clearly as adults; they do not wear seat belts as consistently as older drivers. This choice may have to do with a lack of understanding of consequences.
Lack of Skill
It takes time to master driving and vehicle handling skills and new teen drivers simply haven’t had the time.
Alcohol and Drugs
Teens often engage in partying and drinking or using drugs and some get behind the wheel and drive. Driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs is a common cause of serious and sometimes fatal car crashes among teenage drivers. Possibly because of lack of skill, teenagers who drink and drive are at a much higher risk of being involved in a serious car accident than are older drivers with equal concentrations of alcohol in their blood.
When teens drive with passengers in the car the risk of being involved in a fatal car crash increases by three times; the more passengers, the higher the risk. Teen male drivers are particularly at risk with teen male passengers as they may encourage the driver to take unnecessary risks.
Night driving is particularly dangerous for teen drivers: the per mile crash rate is three times higher after 9 p.m. than during the day. Among other factors, this is likely because teen driving involving alcohol or drugs is more likely to occur at night.
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