Will Increased Access to Substances Lead to More Car Crashes?


Now that recreational marijuana and to-go cocktails have been legalized in Virginia, it is fair to speculate if this increased access to inhibitory substances will lead to more driving under the influence (DUI). 


New Alcohol Laws


The Virginia General Assembly passed two bills on the accessibility of alcohol, which were recently signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam. In effect since July 1 of this year, House Bill (HB) 1979 and HB 2266 significantly relax previous restrictions on consuming and purchasing alcohol. HB 1979 permits restaurants and bars to sell two to-go mixed beverages per meal, with a limit of four to-go alcoholic drinks in total. This bill also allows wineries to sell mixed wine drinks for carry-out consumption. House Bill 2266 permits Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to increase the frequency and duration of events requiring a liquor license if requested by a locality. The previous law only allowed 16 events per year, with no event lasting longer than three days. 


What About Weed?


Marijuana statutes are always slightly more complicated, especially in Virginia. While marijuana possession of up to one ounce will not be legal until 2024, marijuana possession was decriminalized last year, with the General Assembly deciding that it is now a civil penalty punishable by only a $25 fine. 


As far as the rest of the United States, California was the first state to medically legalize cannabis in 1996, legalizing it recreationally two decades later. By November of 2020, 14 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, including Maryland and the District of Columbia. Another 16 states, including Virginia, have decriminalized marijuana, although it is still illegal recreationally. 


How it Affects Driving


According to research published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal in March 2020, the proportion of cannabis-positive drivers involved in fatal incidents jumped from 8 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2014, raising concerns about the influence of cannabis use on driving. In general, cannabis users drove more dangerous than healthy control participants, with more accidents, higher speed, increased lateral movement, and less rule-following. Even more concerning was that researchers were able to identify regular cannabis users, particularly early-onset users who began smoking before the age of 16, as they showed these impairments even when they were not intoxicated. 


Regarding alcohol, it has already been definitively proven that drunk driving is hazardous and foolish. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, alcohol was involved in 34% of all traffic fatalities in 2018, accounting for 278 of the 819 traffic deaths in Virginia. Over the course of their lives, Virginians have a one-in-six probability of being involved in an alcohol-related crash. How much will this probability increase now that marijuana and alcohol can be ordered on your phone and picked up via drive-thru?


Analyzing the Impacts


The Virginia legislature has just launched a statewide DUI experiment to ascertain whether these new laws will have the devastating impact many anticipate. The study will begin in a month and will be conducted over the next year, using all Virginia drivers as subjects. 


Currently, a DUI in Virginia is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and up to twelve months in jail, in addition to revoking your driver’s license. With two new alcohol laws now in effect and new cannabis laws coming into effect within the next couple years, we will have to see if this punishment is sufficient to dissuade drivers from getting behind the vehicle intoxicated.