Legal cannabis may have caused 2015 jump in county traffic deaths
Traffic injuries and fatalities are up in Washington County and across the state of Oregon, but local law enforcement still lacks the tools to pin down a specific reason — in spite of speculation as to the cause of the change.
The state saw a 25 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities in 2015, the most recent data available. Compared to the year before, that represents 89 additional deaths. Injury accidents were up nearly 19 percent to 41,676 over the same time span. The 2015 crash statistics were released by Oregon Department of Transportation in February.
The state released county-specific statistics in early June, and Washington County's traffic-related deaths jumped by more than 86 percent.
Over the five years prior to 2015, the county averaged about 16 fatal crashes each year. Twenty-eight people died in traffic-related incidents in 2015.
The 2015 fatal crashes are well-dispersed throughout the county with respect to populated areas. Three fatal incidents took place east of Forest Grove, four fatal incidents happened in Hillsboro, three occurred in Beaverton and three in Tigard.
Until the 2016 numbers have been released, law enforcement won't know if 2015 is an upward spike in a downward trend or a reversal of the formerly steady decline in traffic deaths — and agencies are continuing to search for answers about what caused these crashes.
Pot is one possible contributing culprit.
Washington County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Shannon Wilde pointed to the legalization of marijuana in 2015 — over factors such as population increase and distracted driving — as a cause of the Washington County increase.
"Could be population growth, but some of it is also probably contributed from the legalization of cannabis," Wilde told the Tribune in May.
Oregon State Police have seen evidence of cannabis in traffic stops, OSP spokesperson Bill Fugate said, and the number of officers certified to sniff out drugs during traffic stops has followed suit.
"Cannabis DUIs (Driving Under the Influence) have gone up since the legalization of marijuana," Fugate said.
That assertion is backed up by a study released by the non profit Highway Loss Data Institute in mid-June, which discussed rising insurance claims in three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — and cited cell phone use and the legalization of marijuana as possible causes for the increased number of crashes. All three states have legalized recreational marijuana, beginning with Washington in 2012, Colorado in 2014 and Oregon in 2015.
Insurance claims in those three states have risen 3 percent faster than neighboring states since 2014.
But how big of an impact does marijuana have in Washington County traffic incidents?
The short answer is that law enforcement officers don't really know.
Proving marijuana impairment
Of the 28 deaths in 2015, nine were pedestrians. Nine crashes involved a vehicle hitting a fixed object like a tree or guardrail. Two fatalities were in head-on collisions, two were rear-end collisions and two were caused by a sideswipe.
The deadliest stretch in the county was a two-mile section of Highway 99W in Tigard, where pedestrians were killed in January and February and a driver was killed while making a turn in June.
It can be difficult to draw a strong correlation between marijuana and an increase in collisions because of incomplete or unavailable data, said Timothy Tannenbaum, a lieutenant with the Washington County Sheriff's Office Traffic Safety Unit.
When a driver is pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving, they're given a field sobriety test. If they appear to be impaired, they take a breathalizer test.
If the breath test shows the driver's blood-alcohol content is more than .08, the driver is arrested and prosecuted for DUII, regardless of whether there are other drugs in their system, Tannenbaum said.
Once a driver hits .08, the prosecutor doesn't need much else to get a conviction, The added. Law enforcement may not need to prove the presence of other drugs to demonstrate the driver was too intoxicated to drive, he said.
Tannenbaum said other drugs can still make a driver more dangerous, even if the drugs won't show up in a conviction. A large portion of people arrested for drunken driving have consumed more than one drug, Tannenbaum said.
"If they're drinking and at .08 and also smoking marijuana, there's a higher level of impairment than if it was just one of two drugs," Tannenbaum said. "If they're at .04 and smoking marijuana, it might be closer than if they were just drinking alcohol and at .08."
A deputy can request a urine or blood sample, but only if the he or she believes the subject's impairment is not because of alcohol, Tannenbaum said.
Beaverton Police spokesperson Mike Rowe said blowing a breathalizer of .08 won't stop an investigation into a further cause of impairment. If an officer believes other drugs are involved, a Drug Recognition Expert will come in and work out which drugs the driver may have taken.
Every agency has someone trained to recognize the effects of one drug or another, Rowe said, and the information can be useful to prosecutors in getting a conviction.
But sometimes, Tannenbaum said, it's not that easy.
Drivers who have smoked marijuana can usually walk in a straight line and touch their finger to the tip of their nose, but they tend to struggle with judgments of time and distance and concentrating on more than one task at a time, Tannenbaum said. Tolerant marijuana users can be exceptionally good at the field test, but skills such as critical thinking and reaction time can still be hampered, Tannenbaum said.
More officers are receiving drug recognition training to help pinpoint non-alcohol DUIs, but the presence of other drugs can be harder to suss out.
"Is marijuana causing an increase in crashes? Probably, but a lot of crashes are not detecting impairment at the scene," Tannenbaum said. "Marijuana is a difficult drug. It's not like alcohol where you can easily see or smell it."
Other factors include miles driven
Washington County currently has five trained deputies and is in the process of certifying two additional deputies. In the case of a shortage — sheriff's office spokesperson Jeff Talbot said deputies can go weeks without a call, or can have multiple calls in a single night — the sheriff's office can reach out to other local agencies like Hillsboro or Beaverton police, or more rarely, to outside agencies like Portland Police.
Fugate said the number of law enforcement officers with Drug Recognition Expert training has climbed "quite a bit" over the last few years. The program is run by Oregon State Police.
While noting many in law enforcement suspect a connection between marijuana and traffic crashes, Tannenbaum did acknowledge the presence of other factors. In 2017, the Federal Highway Administration released data showing the average number of miles driven per person had risen for the fifth consecutive year.
The population in Washington County has also ballooned over the last several years, while the number of crashes and fatalities has remained relatively steady — meaning the rate of fatal and injury incidents has lowered relative to population.
And over the long haul, traffic deaths have declined considerably in Washington County compared to the earlier part of this century. From 2004-09, the county averaged more than 28 deadly crashes per year, including a high of 37 such crashes in 2006.
Tannenbaum is hoping Oregon will begin drawing blood for DUIs, which can help police determine what was in a driver's system at the time of their arrest. The system would help catch drugs which are more difficult to spot in a field test.
But even if law enforcement can prove a suspect had drugs in their system, everyone responds to drugs in a different way.
"The solution is just don't drink and drive or smoke and drive," Tannenbaum said. "These things happen because people are making the decision to get behind the wheel of a car."