AAA Northeast and Students Against Destructive Driving have teamed up this year to educate teens on the risks of marijuana-impaired driving, utilizing a curriculum developed by AAA Northeast called, "Shifting Gears: The Blunt Truth About Marijuana and Driving."

There is a misconception that driving under the influence of marijuana is not that bad but it is that bad, said Shani Jarvis of AAA Northeast.

It affects a lot of the critical skills needed to drive safely and if someone is impairing the critical things needed to drive safely, it's not going to work out well for any driver, she added.

The AAA Northeast program has been delivered to high schools throughout the region for the past four years. But this year, AAA partnered with SADD to bring this presentation to a wider audience, with the hope of delivering it on a peer-to-peer level.

The program is typically delivered in high school health and driver's education classes, said Jarvis.

It's researched-based and backed by science. The program talks about the effects of THC (the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes people feel "high") on the developing teenage brain and how it affects mental processing.

There is research-based information on increased crash risks for marijuana-impaired drivers and Jarvis said they are fortunate to have research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to back that up.

The program also discusses the physical and cognitive processes affected by marijuana use.

"We show the students exactly what it feels like to have a visual impairment which is one of the things that marijuana does," said Jarvis.

Marijuana goggles are used to simulate that visual impairment.

She said there is a lot of concern about teens engaging in risky behavior, especially now that marijuana is legal for recreational use for adults in New Jersey, possibly making it more accessible to teens.

Teens are risky in any way because that frontal lobe is not developed yet. They don't have that executive function. When Jarvis delivers the program, she tells teens pot is legal and available for adults, but not legal for those 21 and under. She reminds them it is illegal to drive impaired by the substance, just like with alcohol.

The program has been delivered to about 60,000 high school students so far throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. Pre and post-program surveys demonstrate significant attitudinal change; after participating. 98% of teens surveyed agreed marijuana-impaired driver's performance and 95% agreed that marijuana affects a driver's reaction time.

Jarvis said that a pre-program survey in New Jersey found that 86% of participating students thought marijuana affected a driver's ability to think and focus. But 13% said no. After they heard and listened to the program, 90% thought marijuana affected a driver's ability to think and focus. Only 9% disagreed.

"In New Jersey, we are seeing that before the state legalizing marijuana, we did see that drivers who were involved in fatal crashes, had cannabis in their system," Jarvis said.

It does not narrow it down to teens, but she said that in 2009, 72 drivers (not necessarily teens), involved in fatal crashes had marijuana in their systems. In 2020, that number rose to 82.

Jarvis said it's very hard to isolate cannabis. Police have found that it's "polysubstance abuse." That means a driver will have more than just cannabis in their system. It could be cannabis and alcohol or cannabis and prescription drugs or cannabis and other illegal drugs, so it's hard to isolate the cannabis portion.

Schools and communities interested in learning more about Shifting Gears: The Blunt Truth About Marijuana and Driving, should visit www.AAA/ShiftingGears or visit www.SADD.org for information about starting a local chapter

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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