First: Tiger Woods did the right thing.
Last week, the greatest golfer of our time, now 41 years old, many years and four back surgeries removed from owning a sport and A-list celebrity status, started to feel sleepy while driving around near his Florida home—the hangover from a pharmaceutical cocktail, including Vicodin, prescribed after his most recent surgery in April.
He had just enough presence of mind to pull over to the side of the road before he passed out. If he’d only remembered to turn the car off before falling asleep while still in the driver’s seat—where police found him before sunrise on Memorial Day morning, engine running, brake light and turn signals on—Tiger Woods may have escaped the ignominy of failing roadside sobriety tests (he had a blood-alcohol count of 0.00 but copped to being overwhelmed by the pills), being slapped with a DUI charge and having his bleary-eyed mugshot printed on every sports page in the country.
But then we wouldn’t be able to have this important conversation.
We should use this incident as a demonstration of why the marijuana-and-driving “debate” is mostly a dishonest distraction, deployed whenever convenient to delay marijuana legalization or justify punishing users severely—without actually doing anything to achieve stated goals of keeping people safe and making roads and highways less dangerous.
Because: An overwhelming majority of the fatal automobile accidents in America involve neither drugs nor alcohol.
It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1980s, when bereaved activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving convinced lawmakers to enact harsh penalties for the offense, about half of fatal accidents in the U.S. involved alcohol. The idea then, as now, was that such crashes were preventable, if only the rumhead who caused it all hadn’t been driving.
Now, as we all know, driving drunk means risking losing your license (and with it, much of your ability to work, since, for most of us, getting to work involves a car), paying steep fines and going to jail.
Now, sobriety checkpoints (a measure borrowed from police states and applied to Saturday nights) are the norm. Driving drunk is regarded as not only reckless but immoral. It’s something only bad people do. Is the problem getting better?
Sort of. Fatalities are down, way down: In 2014, just under 10,000 people in America died in an alcohol-related car crash, down from 13,500 in 2006.
Prescription opiate overdoses kill five times as many people.
Yet, Americans still drive drunk, and they do it all the time. Americans self-reported driving drunk 115 million times in 1995. In 2014? 111 million times, the lowest in 20 years but not by much.
Though when you consider that Americans took about 411 billion car trips a day in 2001, the amount of drunk drivers is very few—and they cause an inordinate amount of damage. They’re a threat to themselves and others, no doubt, and they’re a threat that is still out there.
But now, with recreational cannabis legal for 65 million Americans and medical marijuana available to many tens of millions more, marijuana is entering the picture.
Alcohol impairs, so does marijuana—so it stands to reason cannabis and driving is an issue (even though, prior to legalization, it didn’t attract nearly the same interest).
No substantive discussion of marijuana legalization can avoid for long the subject of “stoned driving.” To listen to some lawmakers and law-enforcement leaders tell it, the nation’s cannabis users were only waiting for the plant to become legal before loading up on globs and taking a little rush-hour constitutional, preferably while driving a school bus.
Parsing the numbers a certain way, it looks as if the biggest risk on the road is no longer drinking, but drugs.
In 2015, according to federal data, 43 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for drugs—up from 28 percent in 2005.
“Drugs” is a catch-all category that includes prescription meds, as well as legal or illegal cannabis, and/or everything else, but the increase is statistically significant: By comparison, alcohol was a factor in only 37 percent of fatal wrecks.
Prohibitionists point to statistics like that, and also to the 48 percent spike in marijuana-related fatal crashes in Colorado, as proof-positive that marijuana legalization makes the roads less safe, and not compounding concurrent factors like rampant overprescription of opioids, smartphone saturation or anything else.
As Jim Hedlund, a former federal highway safety official, said in a recent story published by Reuters, the opiate crisis has led to thousands of overdoses—taking over from auto accidents as the chief cause of accidental death—but hasn’t caused havoc on the roads.
And neither has marijuana legalization.
The major problem with the cannabis-and-driving data is that we have no idea if the drivers were impaired by marijuana or not—whereas we know the drivers with alcohol in their systems were.
As has been said repeatedly, the presence of marijuana does not signify intoxication.
Cannabis is fat-soluble. THC metabolites can stay in the body for days or weeks after use, long after the effects fade. Other substances, including alcohol, are active when present in the body. Thus, we can draw a conclusion from the alcohol-related data. The marijuana data is only a starting point.
But here’s the big thing—the data used to “show” how cannabis is creating roadway hazards really only shows that driving is an inherently dangerous activity when perfectly sober—as the majority of drivers involved in a fatal crash weren’t on any mind-altering substance at all.
In 2015, according to the much-cited Governor’s Highway Safety Administration report, more than 60 percent of drivers killed in fatal crashes who were tested for alcohol were sober (as far as alcohol was concerned). Of those tested for drugs, 55.4 percent were clean.
When drugs were detected, something other than marijuana—either methamphetamine or another catch-all category, called “other”—was found by a factor of 2-to-1.
In other words, drugs are involved in a slim minority of fatal crashes. And marijuana is involved in a slim minority of those. Cannabis is a subset within a subset, and we still have no idea whether or not drivers in that sub-subgroup were stoned or not. We just don’t know.
Nobody should drive when they’re impaired.
It is a needless risk, a selfish act that can lead to harm that was ultimately preventable. But we should consider the problem in full, and we should consider it rationally: Drugs other than marijuana are a bigger risk than weed on the highway.
And alcohol is a bigger risk than them both.
Greater than either of those is… no mind-altering substance, at all. Driving tired, perhaps. Driving distracted—taking your eyes off the road at the wrong moment to reach around to the backseat to placate a child. Speeding, or playing on a cell phone. You can’t ban any of those things, so instead we talk about “stoned driving.” We shouldn’t.
Or if we do, it’s a conversation that needs to include everything else—like what happens to drivers who aren’t as collected as a zonked-out Tiger Woods.