Some 95% of people say driving while over the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is dangerous, but only 69% believe it is dangerous to drive within an hour of consuming cannabis, according to a recent AAA Foundation survey. In an effort to reverse that disconnect and raise awareness about the dangers of drug impaired driving, a trio of safety organizations has joined forces to support states with effective communication strategies.
Specifically, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), Responsibility.org, and the National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving (NASID) released a new report that provides guidance on how State Highway Safety Offices (SHSOs) can better communicate with cannabis consumers about safe driving and offers recommendations about the types of messages that do and don’t get results.
The report highlights lessons learned from outreach efforts in Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize cannabis, as well as more recent efforts in Connecticut and Wyoming.
Research confirms that cannabis directly affects the parts of the brain responsible for attention, decision-making, coordination, and reaction time, which are all critical for safe driving. Yet experts say there is a significant disconnect between people’s views on cannabis use and safe driving, pointing to the need for effective public outreach and education.
The report comes at a critical time. During the pandemic, more drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for cannabis, and the trend continues. In fact, data from trauma centers indicated that 33% of drivers involved in fatal crashes had tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, in their system — a significant increase from 21% before the pandemic.
In addition, cannabis was slightly more prevalent than alcohol in fatal crash-involved drivers — 33% for cannabis vs. 29% for alcohol — during the pandemic. Impairment from multiple substances also rose in the past few years, with 25% of drivers in fatal crashes testing positive for more than one impairing substance, compared to 18% before the pandemic.
As legal cannabis use becomes more widespread, motorists need to be educated about its hazardous impact on driving. The new report is a playbook to help states develop messaging that resonates with cannabis users and prompts them to refrain from driving for everyone’s safety. The goal is to avoid messages that are outdated, irrelevant, or insulting to cannabis users.
The report suggests SHSOs embrace the following practices to create the most effective messages:
- Encourage dedicated funding for traffic safety programs derived from a portion of cannabis sales tax revenue so that states and their partners can deliver timely and relevant information to the public.
- Form partnerships with the cannabis industry, which can help states gain insights on consumer motivations and behaviors, develop, and deliver impactful messaging, and legitimize safety efforts.
- Enlist trusted advisors to serve as messengers. Let people and institutions that cannabis users trust — rather than government representatives — convey factual safe driving messages. Diverse and non-traditional messengers can improve message reception with cannabis consumers.
- Use language that resonates with cannabis consumers, so they hear the safe driving message instead of tuning it out. Avoid using unflattering or alienating stereotypes of cannabis consumers.