Several stalks of a leafy green plant in an indoor grow space, illuminated with yellowing light.
Marijuana flowers grow in a room at CTPharma in Rocky Hill. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Connecticut has consistently ranked in the top three-to-five states with the highest number of impaired driving fatalities each year.

“It’s a major issue in Connecticut,” said Eric Jackson, executive director of the CT Transportation Institute at the University of Connecticut. “And probably over the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve not had a noticeable decline in the number of impaired driving fatalities.”

The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse, he said. Data is still being reviewed, but according to traffic experts, it was clear that Connecticut experienced an increase in impaired driving incidents during COVID.

“A toxicology report comes across my desk for every fatality in Connecticut,” Jackson said. “The number of drugs that were in people’s systems and the number of people that had drugs in their system, dramatically increased during COVID.”

He pointed to an increase in substance use.

“During the pandemic, alcohol sales soared,” Jackson said. “Other drug use soared. People were at home, they didn’t have to travel to go to work. Some people lost their jobs. People started experimenting with all kinds of other drugs and alcohol. People turned to coping mechanisms to be able to deal with the stress that comes along with COVID.”

Recently released federal data shows that what was happening in Connecticut was also happening nationwide. The consumption of alcohol, which had already been increasing for years, accelerated during the pandemic as Americans struggled with stress and isolation.

As a result, Jackson said, there was an increase in the number of impaired drivers on the road.

“It’s kind of a symptom of people trying to cope and deal with life due to COVID,” he said, “but also the ability to now drink at home, work from home and then go out.”

It is not only alcohol that is impairing drivers, it is other drugs as well. Many traffic safety experts and organizations that study the impact of impaired driving are examining whether the legalization and commercialization of marijuana and cannabis products is having an impact on the level of impaired driving incidents on the roadways.

Cannabis and other drugs may contribute to alcohol-involved crashes

A study in Canada published recently in the medical journal JAMA found a significant rise in cannabis-involved traffic incidents after the rise of the retail market for the drug. The data indicate a nearly 500% increase in ER treatments for cannabis related incidents between 2010 and 2021.

Jackson said that in Connecticut, they are looking at whether the legalization of recreational cannabis plays a role in the impaired driving incidents. However, he adds that some of the drug test data is not 100% complete, in part, due to something called “stop-testing.” He explained that when a person suspected of driving under the influence is tested for alcohol and is found to be above the 0.08 limit for blood alcohol content, authorities stop testing for other substances.

“They don’t test for any other drugs,” Jackson said, “because they can’t prosecute on those. Essentially once they have that 0.08 BAC, they stop all testing because they have enough information to proceed with a prosecution, so I would say a lot of the times we’re maybe under-reporting on crashes with THC and even other drug use.”

Some experts worry that with the de-stigmatization of cannabis as it has become legal and easily accessible, many users may not realize the effects it can have on impairment.

“One of the really well known effects of cannabis is it slows down digestion,” said Steven Kinsey, a professor and director of the Center for Advancement in Managing Pain at the UConn. “The THC slows down digestion; it can slow down alcohol absorption and so the alcohol effects can last longer than they would have if the person hadn’t also smoked cannabis.”

Jackson said the increase in THC-related products also poses a risk.

“The gummies and edibles are almost more dangerous than smoking for transportation safety,” he said. “Because everybody reacts differently and even depending on how much you ingest and how often you ingest, it hits you differently at different times.

As a result, an unaccustomed user of cannabis might misjudge their level of impairment even hours after they’ve stopped drinking alcohol.

Addressing Connecticut’s impaired driving problem

In an effort to combat the issue of impaired driving, The Connecticut Department of Transportation along with UConn’s Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center (CTSRC) and AAA, are hosting an Impaired Driving Summit Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Hartford/Windsor Marriott Airport Hotel. The summit will explore important areas of impaired driving including alcohol, recreational cannabis and poly-drug use trends; drug toxicology and roadside testing methods.

“The goal is to bring together transportation safety experts, the Connecticut Department of Transportation, other state agencies as well as legislators and experts in the field of impaired driving to look at how we get to a point where we can start reducing our impaired driving fatalities in the state of Connecticut,” Jackson said. “As well as taking a look at future technologies and future legislative efforts.”

If impaired driving incidents are to decrease, he said people need to stay off the roads if they are ingesting any substance that can change their mental state.

“You need mental clarity, you need your reaction time, you need your perception time, so anything that’s gonna diminish any of those skills and those responses is going to make you a worse driver,” Jackson said.

He offered advice to users of THC products.

“The rule of thumb is that if you ingest cannabis, give yourself four to six hours before you drive,” Jackson advised. “Stay home, relax, do what you want you to do in the safety and comfort of your own home and don’t get out on the roadways.”

“It’s never gonna end well,” he said, if drivers decide to get behind the wheel too soon.

This story was first published Sept. 29, 2023 by Connecticut Public.