No, legalized marijuana is not the reason for a rise in pedestrian deaths

Watch out, stoner pedestrian! Don't get run over!
Image: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImages

There were roughly 6,000 pedestrians killed in car accidents in the U.S. in 2017. That’s the same high level of pedestrian fatalities as was recorded in 2016, up from about 5,400 in 2015. In fact the number has been climbing since 2009, with only the smallest of dips in 2013.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see the main change in our society since 2009. Just look out of your window and you’re likely to see a zombified walker staring at her smartphone, or maybe a driver sneaking an illegal look at a black rectangle. 

Some 80 percent of us now own smartphones, compared to a mere 17 percent in 2009. It’s a sea change in society and we’re still grappling with the implications. 

But that didn’t stop the Governors Highway Safety Association from sneaking another possible cause into its latest pedestrian deaths report: the fact that seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. 

The report was careful to say that it wasn’t “making a direct correlation or claiming a definitive link” between legal weed and pedestrian deaths. Nevertheless, the New York Times was on it. The Grey Lady conjured up a headline that managed to look both schoolmarmish and clickbait-ish: “When pedestrian deaths are up, is marijuana to blame?Hey, I’m just asking. 

Even Fox News managed to avoid the anti-marijuana clickbait approach in its headline on the report. But the Times — home to self-hating former stoner David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, who wrote a widely derided column about gobbling up marijuana edibles in Colorado without asking about proper dose levels — has a disturbing tendency to grasp for any reefer madness angle it can find.

Yes, pedestrian deaths are increasing at a slightly faster rate in the eight legalized states (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts) plus Washington, D.C. But further down the Times piece, we discover that we’re not really dealing with statistically significant numbers: there are almost no pedestrian deaths in weed-legal Alaska or Maine, and a mere four extra in Colorado. 

We also discover that in the first half of 2017, the states with the most  pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people were Arizona, New Mexico, Delaware, Louisiana, and Florida. None of those states have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

Which means that you could just as easily make a pro-pot argument from these numbers. When pedestrian deaths are up, should more states allow recreational marijuana? 

After all, plenty of pot users will tell you they get more aware of their surroundings when high — not to mention jumpy, paranoid, and more likely to think a car is heading in their direction when it isn’t. 

Other important questions that both the Times and the GHSA failed to ask: Is the rate of smartphone adoption growing faster than average in those eight legalized states, which are generally wealthier than the average? Could that account for the difference, perhaps? And is there a significantly higher number of pot smokers in legal states, rather than just people transitioning from getting America’s No. 1 cash crop illegally? 

When pedestrian deaths are up, should more states allow recreational marijuana? 

And at a time when the U.S. Attorney General is threatening to roll back the Obama administration’s tolerant approach to state-level legalization, is this kind of scare headline irresponsible in the extreme?

Dig into the report and you’ll find another interesting and largely ignored explanation: There are simply more pedestrians in our streets. More of us are discovering the joys (and the health benefits) of walking to work. 

And yet the infrastructure itself has hardly changed. There’s no great national public works effort afoot to widen our sidewalks or strengthen our curbs or build more structures, such as parklets, that put some space between walkers and drivers. 

Or, y’know, more street lamps, since 75 percent of all pedestrian deaths take place at night. It isn’t just democracy that dies in darkness. 

Perhaps the New York Times should worry more about lights and less about lighting up. 

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