Is it time for a drug-driving law?


Safety expert endorses idea of roadside drugalyser test and says too many drug-drivers are getting away with it

Mike Penning
Roads Minister Mike Penning: considering new drug-driving law change. Picture by Highways Agency

A current UK television advert tells of the consequences of driving while under the influence of drugs. The advert uses alarming imagery to show a group of young people cruising in a car at night; all of their eyes, including those of the driver, are twice their normal size.

A hushed voice-over tells TV drivers: “Drugs have an involuntary effect on the eyes that you can’t control – the police can spot this”.

However, many road safety groups think that this in a overly simplified message as “the police can’t always spot this and find it even harder to prove”. The penalties for drug-driving and drink-driving are the same but the police often find it harder to prove the guilt of a motorist suspected of convicting a drug-driving offence.

Breakdown cover company GEM Motoring Assist are just one of the road safety organisations who are keen to eliminate the threat of drug-driving. David Williams MBE, chief executive officer of GEM, said: “It is vital that the government does more to send out a message that drugs and driving should never be mixed together.”

Panel of experts

It is with such a concern in mind that the government has appointed a panel of ten scientists to examine the technical aspects of introducing a new offence of “driving with an illegal drug in your body”.

Road Safety Minister Mike Penning said: “The panel will look at how such an offence could be defined as well as considering whether it is possible to set levels for the impairing effects of specific drugs.”

New drug classifications

Drugs such as cocaine, MDMA, cannabis and opiates are certain to be discussed by the experts. A Department for Transport (DfT) statement noted: “It is likely that the panel will consider whether it is possible to identify, for average members of the adult population, the levels of drugs that have an impairing effect broadly equivalent to the current blood-alcohol limit.”

The panel will be comprised of academic and scientific experts in the field of alcohol and drug misuse and their work is expected to start in the spring.

These experts will have much to discuss. DfT figures reveal that in 2010 drug driving was cited by police as a contributory factor in 51 fatal accidents (compared to 250 fatal accidents linked to drink-driving).

However, experts think that this figure could just be the tip of the iceberg as ‘drugalysers’ are not available to UK police forces – meaning that roadside tests cannot be conducted.

Commenting on this situation, David Williams of car breakdown cover company GEM said: “Very often the police suspect that a drunk motorist might also have taken drugs but, not having the technology to prove this, have to content themselves with subjecting drivers to a breathalyser test. Many motorists who are convicted of drink-driving have probably been lucky to escape drug-driving charges.”

Mr Williams added: “I fully support the idea of introducing roadside drugalyser tests. Other countries use this technology so why can’t we?”

Current methods of detection

Police instead have to rely on a field impairment test if they suspect a driver has taken drugs before getting behind the wheel. The test involves:

  • Using a ‘pupil measure’ to record the size of the driver’s eye pupils – enlarged pupils can be an indication of drug use
  • Asking the subject to close their eyes and estimate the passage of 30 seconds
  • Walking ‘heel-to-toe’ in a straight line
  • Standing on one leg while counting out loud
  • The driver touching the tip of their nose with the tip of their finger with their eyes closed

The results of the tests determine whether a motorist should be taken back to a police station for a blood test. By the time a driver submits to a blood test the drugs can have left their system.

Currently, police have to prove that a driver’s actions have been impaired by drug use to bring charges – a painstaking process.  Creating a new drug-driving offence could simplify this process.

The panel’s agenda

However, the panel will have some complex issues to discuss before the government can make an informed choice about introducing a clearer definition of drug-driving. For instance, the experts’ remit includes examining “whether impairment levels could be exceeded through prescribed or otherwise legally obtained drugs”.

Consideration will also be given to how taking a combination of drugs and alcohol (and combinations of different drugs) can effect a motorist’s driving ability.

David Williams of GEM believes that it is very unwise for drivers to mix alchol with prescribed drugs – the combination, he says, can be a “lethal cocktail” and one which compromises motorists’ judgement and reaction times.

Perhaps in a few years time the police will have more technology at their disposal to test whether drivers have taken prescribed – or recreational – drugs before getting behind the wheel.

With the Home Office having already conducted trials with drug-screening equipment in police stations, the prospect of roadside drugalyser tests seems closer than ever. Could it be that a police officer’s request to “breathe into this please” is set to take on a new meaning?