October 6, 2011 -- Over 10 million people age 12 or older are estimated to have driven under the influence of illicit drugs in the prior year, according to a 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While marijuana is the most commonly detected non-alcohol drug in drivers, its role in causing crashes has remained in question. To examine the link between marijuana use by drivers and risk of a car accident, researchers at Columbia University did a meta-analysis of nine epidemiologic studies and found that drivers who test positive for marijuana or report driving within three hours of marijuana use are more than twice as likely as other drivers to be involved in motor vehicle crashes. The researchers also found evidence that crash risk increases with the concentration of marijuana-produced compounds in the urine and the frequency of self-reported marijuana use.
According to the investigators 8 of 9 studies found that drivers who use marijuana are significantly more likely to be involved in crashes than drivers who do not. Only one small case-control study conducted in Thailand, where the prevalence of marijuana use is far lower than reported elsewhere, was the exception.
Full study findings are published online in Epidemiologic Reviews.
The analysis indicates that 28% of fatally injured drivers and more than 11% of the general driver population tested positive for non-alcohol drugs, with marijuana being the most commonly detected substance.
Guohua Li, MD, DrPh, professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author points out that although this analysis provides compelling evidence for an association between marijuana use and crash risk, one should be cautious in inferring causality from these epidemiologic data alone. However, "if the crash risk associated with marijuana is confirmed by further research, this is likely to have major implications for driving safety and public policy. It also would play a critical role in informing policy on the use of medical marijuana."
"Given the ongoing epidemic of drug-impaired driving and the increased permissibility and accessibility of marijuana for medical use in the U.S., it is urgent that we better understand the role of marijuana in causing car accidents."
Study co-authors from the Department of Epidemiology are Dr. Charles DiMaggio, associate professor; Joanne Brady, PhD candidate; and Keane Tzong, MPH candidate.
The research was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health.
About Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health
Founded in 1922 as one of the first three public health academies in the nation, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 300 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,000 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP), the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit http://www.