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Legal marijuana isn’t the reason some car insurance rates are high

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Q: Our family is having a debate about states that have legalized marijuana. I say car insurance companies have raised rates on all policy holders. As a result, everyone pays for the pleasure of others. I also say that the number of auto accidents has increased in these states. Do I have a legit argument?

R.L., of Collinsville

A: Sorry, but I’m going to light up your family dispute even more.

Two major studies on marijuana and car accidents were published in late June, and, when the smoke cleared, they came to somewhat contradictory conclusions. I’ll explain the “somewhat” in a moment, but first the overall results:

A study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety clearly backs your position. In studying claims filed from January 2012 to October 2016, the institute found that the frequency of people filing claims for all collisions was about 3 percent higher than would have been anticipated in states with legalized marijuana.

In doing their research, the institute compared claims from states that had recently legalized pot (California, Oregon and Washington) with claims from neighboring pot-free states. Claim frequency was calculated by dividing the number of claims by the number of insured vehicle years. And while 3 percent is relatively small, the institute maintains it is significant.

“Worry that legalized marijuana is increasing crash rates isn’t misplaced,” David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer, wrote on his group’s website, www.iihs.org.

But before you get too high over those results, look what the American Journal of Public Health found: After studying federal data on fatal car crashes from 2009 to 2015, it concluded that drivers in Colorado and Washington were no more likely to be involved in such accidents than drivers in states where marijuana is still verboten.

“We found no significant association between recreational marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado and subsequent changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates in the first three years after recreational marijuana legalization,” it stated.

So what can you make of these seemingly opposite findings? Here’s where the “somewhat” comes in. First, one study looked at only fatal crashes while the other looked at all accident claims. Perhaps legalizing marijuana does lead to a small increase in minor mishaps, and federal research has indicated that weed can increase your risk of an accident. However, they still maintain that marijuana is less risky than alcohol, which, even in small doses, can up the likelihood of an accident.

Moreover, the two studies used different control groups in their comparisons. The insurance institute compared the three West Coast states to their geographical neighbors while the health journal studied other states based on traffic patterns, population and the makeup of roadways. Perhaps had both used the same methodology, they would have reached the same conclusions.

So I envision your family spending many a crisp winter night around the fireplace continuing your spirited debate. However, I would take your argument about increasing insurance rates off the table. According to research in 2016 by Obrella.com, a clearinghouse for drivers seeking car insurance, there seems to be no propensity by insurance companies yet to raise rates in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

For its analysis, Obrella looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to find areas in the United States where people are more likely to toke up. Then, it looked at auto insurance rates from various state departments of insurance. The number-crunchers found no correlation between marijuana use and car insurance rates.

“Of the five areas with the highest auto insurance cost, only two (Seattle and Denver) are in the top weed-use category,” the report stated. “It is notable that these cities are in states that have legal recreational marijuana. However, three of these expensive areas actually had some of the lowest rates of marijuana use. Conversely, three of the cheapest areas for car insurance (Hawaii, San Bernardino and San Francisco) have the highest rates of THC (the active compound in marijuana) use.”

They found Denver did have the highest insurance rates, but Huntsville, Alabama, and Jackson, Tennesse were close behind. But after saying marijuana is just one factor in figuring rates, they did offer this cautionary note:

“If high rates of marijuana use lead to more crashes, we might expect those areas to have more expensive insurance.”

Today’s trivia

When is the annual National Weed (i.e., Marijuana) Day — and why?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Hubert Prior “Rudy” Vallée was the pop superstar of his day. “At the microphone he is truly a romantic figure,” a Radio Revue writer wrote in 1929. “Faultlessly attired in evening dress, he pours softly into the radio’s delicate ear a stream of mellifluous melody.” It seems only fitting, then, that he would receive what is believed to be the world’s first singing telegram. On July 28, 1933, a Vallée fan wanted to send her idol a telegram on his 32nd birthday. Since telegrams usually were associated with notices of death and tragedy, George P. Oslin, Western Union’s public relations director, saw an opportunity to make them more popular. So he had (and I am not making this up) operator Lucille Lipps sing the birthday greeting to Vallée over the telephone. Initially, Oslin was told in no uncertain terms that he had just made a “laughingstock” out of the company, but his idea to make the messages more fun caught on and continues today as popular organizational fundraisers.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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