States with legalized pot have seen a troubling increase in car crashes killing pedestrians, highway researchers say, bolstering concerns in Massachusetts that the new marijuana law could mean more dangerous streets here.
Taken together, seven states and Washington, D.C. — all with legalized weed — saw a combined 16 percent jump in pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2017, while the other 43 states recorded an overall 6 percent decrease, according to a study released yesterday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The pot states — Massachusetts, Alaska, Colorado, D.C., Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — had a total of 30 more pedestrian fatalities during the first half of 2017 than the first half of 2016. While included in the legalization states, Massachusetts’ pedestrian deaths decreased by one to 33, and Maine’s number was flat.
The report’s authors — who also cited smartphone use as a factor — cautioned that their findings don’t show a definitive link between pot and pedestrian deaths but said the increase “provides an early look at potential traffic safety implications of increased access to recreational marijuana for drivers and pedestrians.”
Massachusetts has a high-profile pot-related road death case pending. David Njuguna is charged with motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of marijuana in the death of State Trooper Thomas Clardy. Prosecutors say Njuguna had bought four joints at a Brookline medical marijuana facility an hour earlier and had pot in his system when his car crossed several lanes and struck Clardy’s stopped cruiser.
Marijuana has been shown in studies to slow reaction time, degrade critical thinking skills and impair balance, among other effects that could make stoned drivers a threat to pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. Critics have noted, in contrast to alcohol and breath-testing devices, that police lack tools to specifically measure cannabis impairment and have to rely on subjective observations.
A researcher working on marijuana testing methods said the state’s lack of dedicated funds for driving enforcement and the low ratio of officers trained in drug recognition could take a toll.
“Massachusetts is going to have it the worst of any state regarding marijuana-impaired driving,” said Denise Valenti of Impairment Measurement Marijuana and Driving, whose research found some people high on pot registered on eye exams like people who are legally blind. “We did not expect such dramatic results. We thought based on what we had found based on my Parkinson’s research was a generalized slowing of the visual system, a generalized dysfunction. We did not expect to find total dead spots.”
Legal marijuana has been shown to increase insurance claims for fender benders by 3 percent compared to surrounding non-legalization states, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS spokesman Russ Rader said, “Based on what we know so far, marijuana legalization is not good news for highway safety.”
Gov. Charlie Baker said the dangers of pot-impaired driving, in part, prompted state officials to press regulators to delay licensing for marijuana cafes.
“The fact that the Cannabis Control Commission made the decision to go a little slower on its rollout and focus on coming out of the gate strictly on dispensaries and limiting the activity to begin with is a good example of how we need to think about this,” Baker said yesterday.
Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steven Hoffman said, “We are committed to doing everything possible to enhance public safety. There is no question it is a concern of ours.”
Matt Stout contributed to this story.