Marijuana, young drivers and serious car accidents are on a collision course. Fatal crashes involving drivers whose systems showed evidence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, nearly tripled in 10 years, rising from 4.2 percent in 1999 to 12.2 percent in 2010, according to a study released earlier this year by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. In another four-year study, 43 percent of fatally injured drivers under 24 tested positive for cannabinoids. The percentage was lower for older age groups.
Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington and widely tolerated elsewhere in the U.S., parents may be on their own collision course with pot: They face steep car insurance hikes and even cancellation if young drivers on their policies are convicted of a DUI stemming from marijuana use. Here's what parents need to know about drugged driving and the effect it can have on insurance coverage.
Drugged Driving: A Growing Concern
Pot use behind the wheel is a subset of a category that law enforcement and the traffic safety community call drugged driving. Every state has laws addressing it. In many, the laws say if a driver is stopped and authorities can prove the individual drove under the influence of any substance that impairs driving ability, he or she could be convicted of a DUI. Nearly one-third of states feature "per se" laws. These more strict laws say that any amount of a controlled substance found in the driver's body is evidence of impaired driving.
The hazards of drunken driving are well known. A growing concern among researchers, law enforcement and those in the traffic safety community is the destruction wreaked by individuals driving under the influence of drugs including marijuana, cocaine and prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Conservative estimates put the cost of these accidents at 6,700 deaths and nearly $60 billion in costs each year.
The effects of marijuana use on driving vary from one person to the next. In the words of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person's THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects." Concentrations of the drug are "very dependent on patterns of use as well as dose."
Insurance Follows the Car
Driving while stoned is a serious matter for teen and twenty-something drivers, who risk death, injury, criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits. In addition to those outcomes, drugged driving also can have financial impacts on parents, who often own and insure the cars their adult children drive.
"Insurance follows the car, not the driver," says Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute, a national insurance trade association. A young person's drugged-driving conviction is likely to be treated like a drunk driving conviction, whether the recreational use of pot is legal in that state, says Bob Passmore, personal lines policy senior director with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
"As with any DUI conviction, your insurance company could cancel your policy, ask you to take the individual off the policy, or keep him or her on at a much higher rate, depending on the rules in the state," Passmore says. "The individual with the conviction might need to get their own policy." That would come at a much higher rate than if the driver is on his parents' policy, he says.
Worters agrees. If a young person is convicted of driving under the influence, "insurance rates will jump astronomically, because driving under the influence is illegal," she says. "DUI convictions can result in multi-year jail terms. You're also putting the parents' assets at risk" if there are civil lawsuits in connection with the accident, she warns.
Not every teen uses pot, of course. In 2012, less than 8 percent of youths ages 12-17 had used marijuana in the past month, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use & Health. And about 80 percent of teens say they disapprove of their friends using pot. Pot use increases markedly for young adults, however. In 2012, 18.7 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds had used marijuana in the past month.
If your child does use pot, you may need to take a tough stance when it comes to his or her use of your cars.
"Parents may want to consider either taking the car privileges away until they've cleaned up their act, or taking them off your insurance policy," Worters says. An insurance company may not be comfortable with a young driver continuing to be on the policy if they're "living in the same house, having possible access to the keys, even if they aren't driving," she says, "because that risk is always there."
Talk to Your Insurance Agent
Parents should consider contacting their insurance agent to assess their coverage, preferably before a teen drives under their car insurance policy, experts says. Parents also might want to review their liability limits and consider an umbrella liability policy. This will provide protection in case their child causes a serious injury and is sued.
"You want to make sure you and your child are protected," Passmore says.
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