As a former Denver DUI attorney and a current Denver personal injury lawyer, I was shocked by a report that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA“) released this week titled, “Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk.” In summing up the report, the Washington Post put it best with its piece titled, “Stoned drivers are a lot safer than drunk ones, new federal data show.”
As I read it, NHTSA’s report basically concludes that, “yes, there probably is an increased crash risk associated with marijuana use, but we’re not entirely sure. But we are sure that alcohol is really, really bad and that it definitely increases your crash risk, maybe even more than we thought.”
I was shocked by NHTSA’s report because (1) it was a highly scientific and rigorous study (NHTSA has been a little shaky on the science in some of its past “studies”); and (2) for a government agency, especially a conservative one like NHTSA, to publish a report that was “equivocal with regard to the crash risk associated with drug use by drivers” is earth-shattering.
For any non-lawyer reading this, you have to understand that any Denver DUI attorney worth his salt has memorized NHTSA’s “DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing” manual which is essentially the Bible for prosecuting DUI’s. NHTSA is the organization that developed standardized field sobriety testing (or “roadsides” as we know them). It is the organization largely responsible for the nationwide crackdown on DUI’s since at least the early 90’s. And here, in this report, they are all but confessing that drug use, specifically marijuana use, may not increase a driver’s crash risk at all. And if it does increase one’s crash risk, it’s nowhere near the level of alcohol.
To illustrate how difficult it is to draw a straight line between drug use and crash risk, NHTSA’s report discusses an overview of nine separate studies that tried to draw a direct correlation between marijuana use and crash risk. Not surprisingly, seven of the studies found that pot use did increase one’s crash risk. But two of the studies showed just the opposite – that marijuana actually reduced one’s crash risk. In other words, at least according to 2 separate studies, pot really does make you a better driver.
If NHTSA’s report equivocated on the relationship between drug use and crash risk, it certainly didn’t mince words when it came to alcohol. In fact it made the correlation that much stronger. NHTSA’s report shows that, with each point rise in one’s blood alcohol level, there is an exponentially greater risk of that person crashing. At a .03 blood alcohol level (“BAC”), the risk of a person crashing increases by 20% compared to a sober person. At .05 BAC, the crash risk doubles. And at .10 BAC, the crash risk increases to 5.5 times that of a sober driver.
In any case involving a Denver car accident attorney suing another at-fault driver, that personal injury lawyer has to prove that the at-fault driver’s negligence caused his client harm. Therefore, in any auto accident case where there is a Colorado State Traffic Accident Report stating that the at-fault driver had THC in his system, the natural response for a Denver personal injury attorney is to assume that the at-fault driver being stoned was the cause of the accident that hurt his client. Case closed.
However, a good Denver personal injury attorney is going to work his case backward from jury trial and try to think about any number of ways his case could go wrong if he’s not careful.
If a Denver car accident attorney’s main theory of liability is that the at-fault driver was stoned when he hit his personal injury client and is therefore liable, even the most basic insurance defense attorney is going to try and bring in a trial expert and use this most recent NHTSA report to debunk that same theory. In fact, that trial expert might even say something to the effect of, “We don’t know if stoned driving increases one’s crash risk. At least 2 studies suggest that it’s a good idea to get stoned before you drive.”
The point is that, as a Denver personal injury lawyer, one always has to be careful to accept any one theory as to what caused his client’s injuries. A good lawyer should always explore other theories of liability before jumping on the Reefer Madness bandwagon, especially in Denver where juries could be more sympathetic to stoned drivers and may also have had personal experiences driving stoned (although they’d probably not ever admit it in court).