Colorado Transportation Report Highlights Attitudes Toward Cannabis-Impaired Driving

Colorado Transportation Report Highlights Attitudes Toward Cannabis-Impaired Driving

The Colorado Department of Transportation launched an educational campaign in 2017 called “The Cannabis Conversation,” through which it took a “conversational approach” toward engaging cannabis consumers. This week, after two years of research on attitudes toward cannabis impaired driving, the Department published its findings. 

Three major takeaways: People who consume cannabis more often find driving after consumption “less dangerous;” Cannabis consumers report a high level of skepticism about many aspects of driving under the influence of cannabis, from the laws to enforcement, and report wanting good, “credible” information; The best public education campaigns about cannabis and driving “lead with feelings and follow with facts.” 

In 2018 in Colorado, the latest year for which data are available, there were 31 “cannabis-involved fatalities” where the driver tested positive for Delta-9 THC above the 5 nanogram per mL of blood threshold. Further, in 2018, 22.3 percent of survey respondents reported that they drove within a couple of hours of cannabis consumption, a record high. 

It appears that frequency of consumption is linked to the perceived risks of driving under the influence of cannabis, specifically, because of what consumers think about tolerance. These consumers “considered driving high a personal choice about their individual tolerance and safety.” Those who consumed less often were more likely to equate driving after consumption as “unsafe.” 

Some consumers, the report noted, “even told us they drove better after using cannabis because they were calmer.” 

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (Note: +/- 3.2% confidence interval for % reporting driving)

Cannabis consumers expressed more skepticism than those who don’t consume cannabis about “legal consequences and the ability of police to enforce DUI laws regarding cannabis.” Respondents leaned on experiences they had themselves, or anecdotal experiences from other cannabis consumers, and were particularly critical of the state’s impaired driving threshold because they feel it is not “based on sufficient evidence.” Respondents noted that THC in the blood doesn’t necessarily equal impairment because of, for example, tolerance. 

(Read Cannabis Wire’s resource page about the science of cannabis-impaired driving.)

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a survey last year that found that almost 70% of Americans think it’s “unlikely” that they’ll be stopped by police and charged for driving under the influence of cannabis. The survey found that 14.8 million drivers reported driving, at some point in the past 30 days, within an hour of cannabis consumption, mostly those in the Millennial or Gen Z age brackets. 

When it comes to public health campaigns, the Colorado Department of Transportation highlighted the messaging that they learned was ineffective. One communication tool that hits a nerve with cannabis consumers: stereotypes. “Cannabis users were sensitive to the stoner stereotypes and said that an effective campaign needs to be inclusive of a wide variety of cannabis users and not play into negative stereotypes,” the report noted. Cannabis consumers also didn’t buy scare tactics or threats of legal consequences. Consumers said they want better data and more research on impairment.

“Many do not find current statistics and studies convincing enough to merit changing their behavior. Additionally, some respondents said they had heard there was research that cannabis improves reaction time or driving ability,” the report highlighted. “Some of the respondents who drive after using cannabis dismissed existing research and data as counter to their own experiences.”

What did work? Informative ads that didn’t feel condescending, and had a tone of talking to a friend, rather than a parent. Consumers also liked when statistics were used in the campaign, though stats alone don’t appear to be enough to convince someone not to drive while impaired by cannabis. 

One major hurdle facing policymakers is that a cannabis consumer’s approval of an ad doesn’t mean that a dangerous or risky behavior will be subsequently curbed or modified. 

“Throughout the research, we kept a focus on which ads were scoring high on measures of increasing behavior change, not just the ads that people liked. Some of the favorite ads were the funniest or provided the clearest solution, yet they weren’t effectively helping people who drive under the influence of cannabis progress through the behavior change continuum,” the report noted. “While an effective campaign needs to resonate and be appreciated, those characteristics alone will not make the campaign effective.” 

The best strategy for behavior changes come down to discomfort, according to the report, or, in other words, drawing a consumer to a feeling that runs against “deeply held beliefs.”. Most respondents told the Department that they had, at some point, been “uncomfortably high” or knew they were too impaired to drive. The Department learned that consumers often do a “gut check” before jumping behind the wheel, which is “open to influence” from public health campaigns. 

“The feeling of unease provides an opening that can start a process of questioning, increased awareness, and progress toward sustained behavior change,” the report highlighted. In fact, the campaign that the Department said was the most effective at getting consumers to rethink driving while impaired by cannabis was called “Uncomfortable High.” Consumers also found considering others’ wellbeing, like children for example, to be effective at pushing them to consider whether to drive. 

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