Washington teens think marijuana makes them better drivers, report says

KING COUNTY, Wash. -- Warmer weather brings an increase in deadly accidents, especially among teenagers. The risk is even higher when drivers add drugs to the mix.

More than half of drivers killed in the U.S. are impaired and three years ago, drugged drivers killed on the road eclipsed those with just alcohol in their system.

That same year, King County Sheriff's Deputy Steven Minters joined the force. He says even more people are driving high than when he started.

"From what I've seen, yes, it's increased," Minters said.

Q13 News reporter Simone Del Rosario and photographer Marcus Mathisen joined Minters for a DUI emphasis patrol, where drunken driving is easy to diagnose.

A quick exhale can tell an officer how much alcohol is in a person's system, but drugs require more discernment. That's where drug recognition experts, or DREs, come in.

"Every officer has the ability to recognize impairment, we just come in and help document it," said Sgt. Mark Crandall, Washington State Patrol's DRE coordinator.

Crandall oversees 200 officers in the state that specialize in impaired driving.

With drug use, toxicology is the final piece of a 12-step evaluation process. The symptoms need to speak for themselves.

"Every time there's an arrest, everyone hears from the back of their mind, 'Prove it,"" Crandall said. "So we have to prove it and proving it in a court of law is beyond a reasonable doubt."

According to AAA, deadly crashes involving marijuana doubled in the state after legalization. Where experts and officers are clear -- drugs impair driving -- public opinion still lags.

According to a 2018 report by Washington Traffic Safety Commission, only about a third of drivers who've used marijuana in the past year believe it impairs their ability to drive within two hours of use.

The results are even more shocking when it comes to the youngest drivers on the road. More than half of drivers age 15 to 20 believe using marijuana made them better drivers.

In the most recent Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, one in four 12th graders reported using marijuana in the past month, and half of those users said they drove within three hours.

"It's the high-risk behavior that scares me the most on kids," Crandall said.

For him, it's up to parents to mitigate that risk by telling their kids beforehand that they can call on them for a ride.

"You can talk to the kid later about disappointments, you can talk to them about why were you at the party or with somebody," he said. "But ultimately, most of us parents are like, 'Please we'll go pick up kids.' We'd all wake up in the middle of the night and go get friends' kids. We'd do anything that we could."

Anything to get them home in one piece.

A DUI emphasis patrol starts out way before officers get on the road. It begins with outreach and education, so that by the time enforcement happens, hopefully no one is driving impaired.