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PD Editorial: The new DUI: Driving after smoking pot

A driver crashed into the front of Village Pets in Santa Rosa on Monday. (Courtesy of MARK BASQUE)

THE EDITORIAL BOARD, BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD

On Monday, a speeding car plowed through the display window of a Santa Rosa pet store.

The driver, police said, was under the influence of drugs. He told the investigating officers he smoked some marijuana before hitting the road.

No one was injured, but the incident reflects a disturbing trend.

A new study found that driving under the influence of drugs eclipsed drunken driving in fatal automobile crashes for the first time in 2015.

Forty-three percent of drivers tested had used a legal or illegal drug, compared with 37 percent who tested above the legal limit for alcohol, according to a report released last month by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.

Among the drivers who tested positive for drugs, more than a third used marijuana.

Traffic fatalities are increasing sharply in the United States, despite a long list of safety features now required for new cars and trucks.

More than 40,000 people died in vehicle accidents last year, a one-year increase of 6 percent and a two-year increase of close to 15 percent, according to the National Safety Council. It was the first time since 2007 that auto-related fatalities in the United States topped 40,000.

One emerging cause for traffic deaths is distraction, as too many people continue to fiddle with their cellphones and read and send texts behind the wheel.

Driving under the influence of alcohol remains a constant problem despite stiffer penalties and decades of grisly evidence of the risks of drinking and driving. Drugs always have been part of the same equation, but widespread legalization is adding a new dimension.

Beginning with California in 1996, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal use of marijuana. Recreational use is allowed in eight states, including California.

Colorado, one of the first states to lift the prohibition on recreational use, saw a 48 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths in the first year after legalization.

It isn’t legal in any of those jurisdictions to drive under the influence of marijuana. But surveys show that many people see less risk in driving after using marijuana than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Enforcement is complicated by the lack of a standard analogous to the blood-alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent and by the lack of a test comparable to the breath test used to detect alcohol intoxication. Moreover, traces of marijuana can remain in the blood stream long after the impairment has passed.

Proposition 64, the initiative that legalized recreational use in California, directed the CHP and UC to develop protocols and best practices to determine whether someone is under the influence of marijuana. Some law enforcement agencies are experimenting with a mouth swab test, others are relying on the officers’ observations.

A bill pending in the state Senate Appropriation Committee would make smoking marijuana while driving a vehicle, or as a passenger in a vehicle, a traffic infraction, matching the law for drinking while driving or riding in a vehicle.

That’s a no-brainer. It shouldn’t take a car parked inside a pet store to show that driving under the influence should be banned, too.