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Under a new law expected to be announced in the Queen's Speech, drug-driving in England, Scotland and Wales could become a specific offence with a jail term and fine. For those of you, like myself, that thought that it already was will be surprised to find out that motorists under the influence of drugs can only currently be prosecuted for being behind the wheel if police can prove their driving has been impaired.
And that is not as easy as it sounds.
But under the proposed legislation, drug-driving will be become a specific offence, punishable by up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine, along with an automatic driving ban of at least 12 months.
Coming off the back of what could be construed as one of the worst week’s of his Prime Ministerial ‘reign’, David Cameron said it "simply can't be right" that the laws are not already there to punish drug drivers properly.
"We want to do for drug-driving what drink-driving laws have done for driving under the influence of alcohol. That's why we're doing what we can to get ‘drugalysers’ rolled out more quickly. And this week we'll publish a new drug-driving offence so that driving under the influence of drugs itself is a crime, just like it is for drink driving."
Police will be kitted out with handheld drug detection devices, the so-called ‘drugalysers’, which will take a saliva sample, as well as a breathalyser to test those drivers suspected of offending – and these machined should be available from the Home Office by the end of the year.
The machines are expected to receive approval from the Home Office by the end of the year, and the government think that these, together with the law change, will make it easier for police to prosecute drug-drivers
Road Safety Minister Mike Penning explained that the reason that it had taken so long to get this law brought in was the lack of any credible testing devices, which had made testing “very complicated”, but that now technology had moved on.
"What we are saying is drug-driving is blighting this country and people are being killed and seriously injured on a regular basis. We don't know exactly how many because we're not testing correctly so bring the technology through, give the police the powers and remove this blight."
He added that this technology was already in use in Germany, Spain and Australia although a scientific review panel was currently looking at what drugs the devices would test for. This would help the government specify exactly what drugs would be covered by the offence.
"You'll be tested for drink first because, that's the natural assumption, that if a policeman thinks you're impaired, he'll test you for drink," said Mr Penning. "If you pass that and he still thinks you're impaired, he's actually going to take a saliva swab from you at the side of the road so we're going to replicate what happens with drink for all the legislation going all the way through."
Road safety charity group Brake recently released research that suggested more than 10% of 17-24 year olds had driven shortly after taking illegal drugs last year and were taking "an appalling gamble with their own and others' lives".
"We need the government to follow through with its commitment to tackle this problem," said the group's senior campaigns officer Ellen Booth. "For too long the law on drug-driving has been totally inadequate.
But what studies have there been into the effects of drug-taking on a driver’s ability to perform to a legal standard behind the wheel? Not too many.
- A recent study in Canada found that drivers who use cannabis up to three hours before driving are twice as likely to cause a collision as those not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is because cannabis impairs brain and motor functions needed for safe driving, the researchers suggest. The UK government also believes that use of the drug impairs co-ordination, visual perception, tracking and vigilance.
- According to the British Medical Association, experimental studies suggest high doses of amphetamines increase risk-taking and dangerous driving behaviour - such as speeding; perhaps an unfortunate phrase when talking about amphetamines.
- Cocaine use apparently impairs drivers when the drug is taken in high doses and during withdrawal periods.
- Ecstasy, meanwhile, is thought to cause blurred vision and poor judgement, while anti-depressant drugs can lead to slow reactions and an inability to maintain concentration.
- There is also the added problem of the effects of legal, prescription medication which can also have a negative impact on driving, and combining several drugs or mixing them with alcohol complicates their effects.
At the moment, suspected drug drivers are required to undertake five exercises to assess their ability to drive, including counting out 30 seconds and walking in a straight line. Drivers may also be asked to balance on one leg, touch their nose with the tip of their finger and walk heel-to-toe along a straight line. Suspects who are arrested can be obliged to be examined by a doctor and to provide a blood test.
Hopefully, as a personal opinion, I hope that it will be a zero tolerance drugs policy rather than limits, as Brake and others want. In Western Australia, where zero tolerance has been adopted, it has proved to be "simple, straightforward, relatively quick to administer, and unambiguous".
And the roads a lot safer.