Is marijuana legalization really linked to an increase in fatal car crashes?

April 20, 4:20 in stoner folklore, is a day of celebration—as well as a 12 percent increase in fatal car crashes.

This Friday, cannabis enthusiasts will enjoy their favorite holiday. Some smokers enjoy it daily at 4:20 pm (and, perhaps, some at 4:20 am), but on April 20 marijuana advocates across the planet gather to celebrate the dazzling effects of their favorite plant.


The creation myth dates back to 1971 when five smokers in San Rafael, California planned a search for a rumored cannabis crop. They decided to meet in front of a statue of Louis Pasteur—a man who knew a lot about chemistry—at 4:20 pm; their code was “4:20 Louis.” Louis shortly thereafter lost his street cred and just the number associated with the time of day became stoner lore. 

As states across America loosen restrictions on marijuana—the current administration said last week it would be softening its stance, which could be a jab at Jeff Sessions—there is much to celebrate as we emerge from the half-century racist agenda kicked off by Richard Nixon. But caution in at least one arena is called for: our roads.

That’s what a Research Letter, published in the journal, JAMA, warns. Researchers wanted to know if traffic fatalities increased on April 20 each year. Scanning through 25 years of data, Canadian researchers compared fatal accidents one week before and one week after April 20 between the hours of 4:20 pm and 11:59 pm. Their conclusion:

We examined a quarter-century of national data and found a 12% increase in the relative risk of a fatal traffic crash after 4:20 PM on April 20 compared with identical time intervals on control days. Although the vast majority of Americans do not celebrate 4/20, the observed association was comparable in magnitude to the increase in traffic risks observed on Superbowl Sunday.

High concentrations of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol decrease reaction times and increase variability in speed and lane position. Tolerance matters, however. One 2010 study that compares the effects of alcohol and cannabis on driving found that cannabis users are more likely to compensate for these effects, yet when combined with alcohol their motor control decreases. While the authors critique driving under the influence of either drug, cannabis is not nearly as dangerous as alcohol:

Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk. Furthermore, the risk from driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone.

Of course, that study was conducted before legalization. Today many new smokers are on the road, along with an influx of vape pens and edibles dominating the market. This has caused state governments to crack down on stoned driving. In California, it’s now illegal to be stoned while sitting as a passenger, which arguably can reignite the same racial profiling problems the Nixon administration initiated through its discriminatory efforts.

While the April 20 phenomenon is a statistical outlier, collision claims frequencies due to stoned driving have increased by 3 percent in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, the first states to fully legalize marijuana. But even the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an organization with a vested interest in keeping roads safe, recognizes conflicting evidence:

Some studies have found that using the drug could more than double crash risk, while others, including a large-scale federal case-control study, have failed to find a link between marijuana use and crashes.


A young woman smokes a legal herb called damian as policemen stand nearby prior to marching in support of the legalization of marijuana in Germany during the annual Hemp Parade, or 'Hanfparade', on August 7, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

All this data runs into one specific problem: testing for THC in drivers. Testing for alcohol is simple. To assess THC levels, blood or urine samples must be taken. Even then there’s an issue: you might register over the five nanograms per milliliter limit some states (such as Colorado and Washington) have set 24 hours after you’ve last smoked. While there are companies developing THC breathalyzer technologies, at the moment there is no gold standard for testing when it matters most: directly after an accident. 

Is stoned driving a problem? Not nearly to the degree that texting and driving, in which nine people are killed and over a thousand are injured every single day on American roads. While drunk driving has been reduced thanks to concerted political and social efforts, cell phones are by far the most dangerous addiction we’re currently facing on streets and highways.

This is not to give stoned driving a free pass. You want to be extra cautious during rush hour on April 20. For the most part, discretion is advised. American roads have become an arena of constant distraction, and taking the lives of others (as well as yourself) into your own hands is a responsibility we pay too little attention to.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

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  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
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Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku

(pexels.com)

While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

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