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Is Legal Cannabis Really To Blame For Increase In Pedestrian Deaths?

About 6,000 pedestrians were killed in auto accidents in 2017, according to a study released this week, marking the second year in a row at fatality numbers not seen in 25 years. Is marijuana legalization to blame?

“We are not making a definitive, cause-and-effect link to marijuana,” according to Richard Retting, a traffic safety engineer at Sam Schwartz Consulting and author of the study. The data “is a marker for concern,” he added. “It may be a canary in a coal mine, an early indicator to address.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association’s annual Spotlight on Highway Safety provides a glimpse at state and national trends in pedestrian traffic fatalities for 2017. And the fatality trend is alarming. “Two consecutive years of 6,000 pedestrian deaths is a red flag for all of us in the traffic safety community. These high levels are no longer a blip but unfortunately a sustained trend,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “We can’t afford to let this be the new normal.”

States reported a total of 2,636 pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017. Adjusting the raw data based on past data trends, GHSA projects that pedestrian deaths in 2017 will total 5,984, essentially unchanged from 2016, in which 5,987 people on foot lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. Pedestrians now account for approximately 16% of all motor vehicle deaths, compared with 11% just a few years ago.

Two recent trends present an interesting correlation with rising pedestrian fatalities: the growth in smartphone use nationally and the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states. While the report does not find or imply a definitive link between these factors and pedestrian deaths, it is widely accepted both smartphones and marijuana can impair the attention and judgment necessary to navigate roadways safely behind the wheel and on foot.

“I’d be cautious about drawing a direct link to any potential cause,” said Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety. “But it’s certainly worth trying to figure out why those numbers are what they are.”

The reported number of smartphones in active use in the U.S. increased 236% from 2010 to 2016, and the number of cell phone-related emergency room visits is increasing as the devices become more prevalent in daily life.

The seven states and D.C. that legalized recreational marijuana use between 2012 and 2016 experienced a collective 16.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first half of 2017, while all other states saw a combined 5.8% decrease.

But a closer look at the data finds some curious omissions. For example:

The seven states (Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) and DC that legalized recreational use of marijuana between 2012 and 2016 reported a collective 16.4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017 versus the first six months of 2016, whereas all other states reported a collective 5.8 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities.

Astute readers may notice the absence of California, which also legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. California, by the way, experienced a major decrease in pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017. If California was moved into the “legal marijuana” category, the legalization states would have collectively a larger decrease in pedestrian fatalities than the “all other states” group.

Of course, California did not have recreational marijuana stores until 2018. But the same is true for Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. (Nevada got stores going in the second part of 2017.)

It is also worth examining whole numbers, not just percentages. Colorado, for example, had a reported pedestrian fatality increase in this new report of only 4 persons, from 33 to 37 from 2016 to 2017. But if you take a look at the data the from 2013 and 2014, when legal marijuana began in the state, you will notice a decrease from 33 down to 23.

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