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Study: Fatal Car Crashes Involving Marijuana Have Tripled

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Patients who use medical marijuana for pain and other chronic symptoms can take an unwanted hit: Insurers don't cover the treatment, which costs as much as $1,000 a month. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Patients who use medical marijuana for pain and other chronic symptoms can take an unwanted hit: Insurers don’t cover the treatment, which costs as much as $1,000 a month. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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SEATTLE (CBS Seattle) – According to a recent study, fatal car crashes involving pot use have tripled in the U.S.

“Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana,” Dr. Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, and co-author of the study told HealthDay News.

Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health gathered data from six states – California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia – that perform toxicology tests on drivers involved in fatal car accidents. This data included over 23,500 drivers that died within one hour of a crash between 1999 and 2010.

Li reported in the study that alcohol contributed to about 40 percent of traffic fatalities throughout the decade.

The researchers found that drugs played an increasing role in fatal traffic accidents. Drugged driving accounted for more than 28 percent of traffic deaths in 2010, which is 16 percent more than it was in 1999.

The researchers also found that marijuana was the main drug involved in the increase. It contributed to 12 percent of fatal crashes, compared to only 4 percent in 1999.

“If a driver is under the influence of alcohol, their risk of a fatal crash is 13 times higher than the risk of the driver who is not under the influence of alcohol,” Li said. “But if the driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana, their risk increased to 24 times that of a sober person.”

Researchers found that the increase in marijuana use occurred across all ages for males and females.

Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told HealthDay News that marijuana impairs driving in much the same way that alcohol does.

“This study shows an alarming increase in driving under the influence of drugs, and, in particular, it shows an increase in driving under the influence of both alcohol and drugs,” Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, added.

“MADD is concerned anytime we hear about an increase in impaired driving, since it’s 100 percent preventable,” Withers said. “When it comes to drugged driving versus drunk driving, the substances may be different but the consequences are the same – needless deaths and injuries.”

Adkins noted that the legalization of marijuana in some states makes these findings important to traffic safety officials.

“It’s a wake-up call for us in highway safety,” Adkins added. “The legalization of pot is going to spread to other states. It’s not even a partisan issue at this point. Our expectation is this will become the norm rather than the rarity.”

Li added that police do not have a test as accurate as the Breathalyzer to check a driver’s marijuana intoxication level.

“In the case of marijuana, I would say in maybe five years or more you will see some testing method or technique that may not as accurate as the Breathalyzer, but is more accurate than the testing devices we have today,” Li said.

The study was published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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