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CDOT's Stoned Driving Message Faces Uphill Climb

The Colorado Department of Transportation continues to warn drivers about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana, but state data shows that Coloradans may not be getting the message.

Although studies show that driving under the influence of marijuana isn't the same as driving drunk, research has also concluded that being stoned can acutely impair driving-related skills and cognitive functions. For CDOT, that's plenty of reason to avoid driving, but public surveys show that too many marijuana users continue to believe that driving high isn't dangerous despite numerous public-awareness campaigns saying otherwise.

The department's newest effort against driving stoned took that into consideration when creating “Uncomfortable High” a new CDOT campaign developed using three years of feedback and surveys from over 80,000 Coloradans, including marijuana users and the legal pot industry.

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The campaign comes alongside reports from the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Safety showing a peak in fatal crashes in which a driver tested positive for active THC, the main intoxicating compound in marijuana. Last year, Colorado experienced the highest number of fatal car crashes involving drivers over the state limit (5 nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood) since 2016, according to the Division of Criminal Safety, with 56 crashes resulting in 416 deaths. However, those figures include cases where the driver also tested positive for alcohol or other drugs. In the same span, there were 158 fatal crashes involving drivers testing over the legal limit for alcohol, resulting in 596 deaths.

The collection of data underscores the importance of CDOT’s message, which challenges an assumption held by some users that driving after consuming marijuana is safe, explains CDOT communications manager Sam Cole. Despite numerous campaigns since 2014 about the issue, however, some users remain unchanged in their beliefs and behaviors around driving after cannabis consumption.

“We haven’t seen fatalities come down too much [after marijuana legalization], and we haven’t seen behaviors change all that much,” Cole says.

The number of Colorado marijuana users who report having driven within two hours of using marijuana in the past thirty days has remained steady since legalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, Division of Criminal Safety data shows Colorado fatalities connected to a driver who tested over the legal limit for THC have stayed significantly flat since 2016.

“Most marijuana users do the right thing; they wait a couple hours or they find a sober ride,” Cole emphasizes, adding that Coloradans admitting to driving high in CDOT surveys based their beliefs on their own experiences.

“It's especially hard when people have driven high and they have not gotten into a crash, and they feel that it’s perfectly safe. Well, we know with alcohol it takes 100 episodes of driving drunk before you’re either pulled over or you crash. You can't be lulled into a false sense of complacency if you’ve driven high before," he says.

The latest advertising campaign, dubbed “Uncomfortable High,” asks this subset of marijuana users to rethink their assumptions about driving under the influence of cannabis and to put themselves in the shoes of someone else.

“It would be totally unacceptable for a school bus driver to be high on the job, or a guy driving a taxi, or a big rig driver to be high on the job. Why is that any different than you driving your personal vehicle?” the new campaign asks.

If any of these situations would make you uncomfortable, then driving high should make you uncomfortable, too, CDOT advocates.

Unlike alcohol, though, quantifying a driver’s marijuana impairment is still open to interpretation. Regular users can have high levels of THC in their blood for hours or days after not using, while someone who's consumed within the last several hours might have lower levels of THC despite still being impaired.

“Once blood is taken, the presence of active THC isn’t always a great predictor of impairment as it gets absorbed by tissue in the body,” Cole admits. “There is a lot more research that needs to be done around marijuana and driving. More needs to be investigated about tolerance as well as detection methods.”

While recognizing the need for further research, CDOT's official message stays firm and simple: “We know marijuana impairs your ability to drive, and that should be all you need to know. Don’t take any chances.”

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