Will new pot law lead to more impaired driving?

WASHINGTON — As D.C. gets closer to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, some people worry it could have an unintended consequence for drivers.

John Townsend, with AAA Mid-Atlantic, says he fears the law might lead to more people driving under the influence of marijuana and causing more traffic crashes.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. D.C. may join 17 states that have some form of decriminalization.

“I think that what the District Council failed to do was to look at the impact on traffic safety and highway safety,” Townsend says. “And if you decriminalize it, will it increase the number of crashes, injuries and death? We don’t know that yet, but research conducted in other parts of the country show there is a link between the two.”

The number of drivers killed in traffic crashes who tested positive for marijuana tripled in the decade that ended in 2010, according to a Columbia University study. Researchers tested drivers killed in six states: California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

Townsend says many of the side effects of using marijuana do not mesh well with driving.

“Altered consciousness, perceptual distortions, drowsiness, impaired memory, impaired coordination and motor skills,” he says.

Townsend says AAA and most other highway traffic safety advocates are concerned.

“It’s the great unknown. There’s this rush to change the laws without first fully understanding what the consequences are,” he says.

Townsend says it’s one thing to smoke pot in your own home, but the situation changes if you choose to take a drive.

“Once you get behind the wheel and you drive impaired, it becomes everybody’s concern, including other drivers, all other highway users, schoolchildren, pedestrians and cyclists,” he says.

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