Driving, Marijuana, Car Insurance: Your Questions Answered

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Forty-eight states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medical use. Of those 48 states, 18 have legalized marijuana not only for medical but also recreational use.

Right now, we don't have enough data over a sufficient period of time to properly assess the consequences of these widespread marijuana reforms, but it is difficult to imagine they will effectively decrease the number of impaired drivers and car crashes on our roads and highways.

In fact, the opposite seems to be true: "The [early] research on marijuana and crashes indicates that legalizing marijuana for all uses is having a negative impact on the safety of our roads," states David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a nonprofit joint venture that's funded by insurance companies.

Indeed, car crashes in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington rose as much as 6 percent since those states decriminalized cannabis for medical and recreational use, according to a recent IIHS-HLDI study.

Read on to discover out how motorists, states, collision rates, claims, premiums and insurers are affected by cannabis, whether legalized or not.

Beware, Teenage Drivers High on Weed

In a July 2019 Gallup poll, 12 percent of American adults self-identified as active marijuana users, a percentage that, at the time, remained basically unchanged since 2015.

Even if we assume that the majority of these 39 million regular pot smokers would never get behind the wheel in a state of impairment, the law of averages dictates that some of them will. Perhaps the greatest cause of consternation is the fact that cannabis is "smoked most commonly in the age group [between 16 and 17 years old] that also has the most road traffic accidents," as The Journal on Addictions reports.

Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana

So, what are the effects of marijuana on the human body, human cognition and driving? When considering this question, it is important to keep in mind that the effects of marijuana vary by a host of factors, including product potency, the amount consumed and individual tolerance.

Marijuana use impairs driver performance and response times.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that over 13 percent of Americans think that getting behind the wheel within an hour of marijuana use is not very dangerous at all. But even with moderate usage, a driver can be fatally unaware of pot's deleterious effects. Here are some highlights:

Method of Consumption Affects Level of Impairment

Marijuana can be consumed orally (capsules, infusible oils, pot brownies), "sublingually" (lozenges), topically (lotions, salves, oils) and as a concentrate or dried plant matter (hashish, kief). But unlike those methods of consumption, inhalation (smoking or vaporizing) causes "almost immediate intoxication, with impairment lasting two to four hours," according to the Insurance Information Institute. Maximum impairment occurs 20 to 40 minutes after smoking.

Marijuana Compromises Perception, Cognition and Performance

Frankly, isn't a compromised functionality the entire aim of "getting high"? Anyway, remember: The higher the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the blood, the greater the impairment. Here are some negative effects that are associated with impaired driving due to medical and recreational marijuana:

  • Altered visual perception, including impaired peripheral vision
  • Altered sense of time
  • Increased reaction time
  • Lowered ability to sustain attention
  • Lowered overall attention capacity, including "cognitive flexibility"
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired ability to stay within a lane
  • Lax monitoring of the speedometer
  • Increased decision time needed when passing
  • Increased decision time needed when responding to a changing traffic light or sudden sound
  • Increased decision time needed when responding to a sudden obstacle

Combining Marijuana and Alcohol Causes Greater Impairment

While it seems to be true that, under certain conditions, cannabis-impaired drivers are actually overly cautious—a phenomenon one wag has termed "compensatory defensive driving"—marijuana and alcohol are generally bad news when taken together. In fact, some research suggests that alcohol and cannabis mutually reinforce each other's toxicity.

For one thing, the pot-and-booze combination can lead a driver to devote more attention to complex skills (steering) and less attention to secondary tasks (speed). Taken together, the combo increases a driver's reaction time and the number of ineffective responses to crisis situations.

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Marijuana: Car Accidents

Not unlike alcohol, medical marijuana and recreational marijuana increase the risk of auto crashes, the Insurance Information Institute (III) states. Furthermore, fatal crashes involving motorists who test positive for THC are on the rise, notes the III.

For example, one study compared fatal accidents in the state of Washington before and after that state's decision to legalize recreational marijuana. Prior to the legalizing of marijuana for recreational puffing, about 8.8 percent of drivers who were involved in fatal crashes tested positive for THC. During the two-year period following the legalization of recreational pot, that percentage more than doubled, to 18 percent. By 2017—a good five years after the legalization of marijuana for recreational use—21.7 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were THC-positive. These sobering statistics should give even the most stoned motorist pause.

(But as noted earlier, hard-and-fast statistics are not easy to come by when it comes to marijuana drug use and getting behind the wheel. For instance, one study found no significant yearly changes in crash fatality rates for Colorado and Washington due to cannabis use when compared to eight control states.)

Marijuana: Auto Insurance

Of course, all drivers should put safety first, taking every precaution to avoid a vehicle crash. If you are charged with a DUI in an at-fault accident due to the use of medical marijuana or recreational cannabis, you could face a steep hike in your coverage rate, never mind staggering liability claims, personal bankruptcy, vehicle impoundment, license suspension, legal fees and jail time.

An uptick in crashes means an uptick in claims. In fact, early studies suggest that many states that have decriminalized recreational marijuana experience a higher frequency of collision claims, according to the III. Furthermore, insurance premiums have already gone up in many states that have welcomed the legalization of cannabis, which includes sales of all cannabis-related products.

Even if you are the most sober and the most conscientious of safety-first motorists, the irresponsible, reckless driver is still out there. Be sure to protect yourself and your loved ones with the right insurance coverage. For instance, you might want to think about purchasing personal injury protection (PIP), collision and comprehensive (full coverage for your car) and uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance. Shop for the lowest car insurance rates first.

Cannabis-Related DUI Convictions

Recreational and medical marijuana laws run contrary to federal law, which still categorizes marijuana as an illegal Schedule I drug that has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The important thing to remember? Whether or not the use of marijuana is legalized, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in all 50 states. That's the law, whether you're motoring in Colorado or Nebraska and Idaho, the only two states that have refused to legalize pot for health concerns, recreational purposes and retail sales.

Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in all 50 states.

In most cases, a marijuana DUI is issued after the person is pulled over for an unrelated reason and the drug is found. A reliable, on-site test for cannabis concentration in the blood remains elusive. In fact, we are still testing the tests. For example, it is currently impossible to isolate the effects of cannabis and alcohol when the two are taken together, as the IIHS-HLDI states. However, while the mere presence of THC indicates marijuana use, it does not necessarily indicate marijuana impairment. So, get a lawyer that knows the law.

If you're arrested for pot-impaired driving, the penalties for a cannabis DUI are the same or similar to a DUI for alcohol. For example, here are the penalties in California for a first conviction:

  • Fines of up to $2,600
  • Jail time of up to six months
  • License suspension for up to 10 months
  • License restriction for up to 90 days
  • Vehicle impoundment for up to 30 days
  • Probation for up to five years
  • Mandatory drug-treatment program
  • Mandatory SR-22 insurance filing for three years

None of this would be good for your mental health, to say the least. Of course, the penalties only get worse for a second or third conviction. What's more, you could face felony charges if someone is killed or hurt in an at-fault vehicle accident. If you've had a DUI and need an SR 22 filing, visit here.

What Happens If You're Caught Smoking Pot and Driving?

It is illegal to smoke, vape or otherwise consume marijuana in your vehicle, even if it's parked in Colorado. In some states, you could be arrested for having marijuana or drug-use paraphernalia in your car. While driving, the basic rule is to keep the marijuana and paraphernalia out of reach—in the trunk, for instance.

If you are suspected of smoking marijuana and impaired driving, a so-called drug-recognition evaluator will evaluate your condition, from the smell of marijuana and dry mouth to dilated pupils, red eyes and an elevated heart rate or blood pressure. If you're arrested, you may have to take a blood test. 

The laws and penalties associated with driving and marijuana use are not exactly the same in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon or any other state. So, retain a DUI lawyer that is an expert on your state's laws if you're arrested.

SmartFinancial Knows Auto Insurance

It's important to put safety first and keep your driving record clean. A marijuana DUI is expensive, especially when it comes to buying car insurance. When it comes to shopping around for auto insurance, leave the heavy lifting to SmartFinancial.

No matter where you live or what you smoke, SmartFinancial is here to help you find the cheapest car insurance. SmartFinancial uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and lightning-fast algorithms to sift through hundreds of insurers. In just minutes, SmartFinancial will locate the insurance company and the insurance policy that best meets your budget and insurance needs. Just enter your zip code below or call 855-214-2291 to speak with a licensed agent.

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