Massachusetts will become the first state where marijuana is legal to include a lesson on cannabis-impaired driving in its standard training for teens seeking a license, transportation officials announced this week.
Beginning in January, state-licensed instructors will teach AAA’s “Shifting Gears: the Blunt Truth about Marijuana and Driving” curriculum to as many as 50,000 aspiring drivers each year.
“This is the first generation of driver education students to be licensed since cannabis became legal in Massachusetts,” the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the Registry of Motor Vehicles, said in a statement. “AAA research shows that impaired driving crashes may increase and continue to injure and kill motorists and their passengers.”
But some experts have doubts about AAA’s approach, saying the group’s past lesson plans contain misleading statistics and have an antipot bent that could undermine efforts to effectively educate teens about the real risks of driving stoned.
Spokespeople for MassDOT and AAA declined to provide details or a preview of the curriculum that will be implemented in January, saying a Massachusetts-specific version of the lessons would be released after a Friday event in Worcester at which officials are expected to formally announce the partnership.
Currently, AAA’s “Shifting Gears” website features a series of interactive quizzes and videos in which a narrator explains marijuana’s effect on the body. It also includes worksheets, lesson plans, and other written material meant to guide instructors and students. The group calls the program evidence-based and touts an endorsement by Brown University’s School of Public Health.
Critics, however, said some of that material is problematic, even as they strongly endorse the overall message that driving high is dangerous.
“This is like DARE 2.0,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a physician and Harvard Medical School instructor who specializes in cannabis, referring to the well-known school antidrug program of the 1980s and ‘90s that was later found to be ineffective. “I can just see teens rolling their eyes. There’s got to be a better way to reach them besides this kind of browbeating.”
Some of the objections center on statistics included in the curriculum that claim to show an increase in car crashes related to marijuana impairment following Washington state’s legalization of the drug. The numbers cited by AAA come from blood, saliva, and other biological tests of drivers involved in crashes that detect marijuana, which experts say only indicate use in recent weeks — not active impairment.
Critics said the AAA material generally overstates and oversimplifies the risks and prevalence of stoned driving, especially compared with alcohol, which as of last year accounted for 83 percent of impaired driving arrests in Massachusetts. They also objected to language in a workbook presented alongside the crash statistics that appears to argue with pro-legalization groups over their significance, with Grinspoon and other experts arguing the political tone of the material seemed aimed more at pot proponents than driving students.
A spokeswoman for AAA did not address the specific concerns, but said their lessons are “designed to educate young driving students on the risks of driving high, and on the importance of having a designated sober driver behind the wheel whenever cannabis is used.”
Grinspoon and other skeptics also took issue with a portion of the current AAA online curriculum that promotes the police-developed “drug recognition expert” protocol for evaluating suspected drug-impaired drivers. The video and quiz warn teens that police officers trained as drug-recognition experts are able to “objectively” discern which drugs drivers have used and whether they’re impaired in part by measuring heart rate, blood pressure, and pupil dilation.
Researchers and legal experts have long assailed the evaluation as pseudoscience, saying its adoption has been fueled more by policymakers’ desire for a breathalyzer equivalent than by strong evidence of its accuracy. For example, one recent study by scientists at Mass. General Hospital found the system yielded false positives in 34 percent of test subjects.
Last year, a AAA representative testified at the State House in favor of a bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker that would have cracked down on stoned driving, including by training more police officers as DREs and requiring courts to accept their testimony as experts. But the measure failed to advance amid criticism that the tests are inaccurate and based on shoddy science.
“DREs are like tossing a coin,” Grinspoon said. “We should be relying facts we actually know and can demonstrate instead of scare tactics.”
Jane Allen, a researcher and public health analyst at the research nonprofit RTI International who specializes in evaluating the efficacy of educational campaigns, said it’s vital for educators to approach teens with honesty and nuance when discussing the risks of drug use.
“We’ve seen with hyperbolic ads that promised dire outcomes from even one use of marijuana that it didn’t cohere with the lived reality of young people,” Allen said. “When they see the behavior you’re targeting doesn’t produce awful results, the trust is gone — their reaction is to reject the entire message and the person delivering it.”
That said, Allen empathizes with driving instructors trying to communicate about a rapidly shifting area of research.
“We’re in an awkward place, because we know it’s not good to drive under the influence of marijuana, but we don’t have the science to document it the way we do with alcohol,” Allen said. “Instead of grappling with that ambiguity, AAA seems to have decided to throw legalization under the bus.”