Those who know me, know that I have been involved with the thorny problem of drugs and driving since the late 1990’s, when I was part of the team that introduced the Field Impairment Test to the police service and wrote the Instructor training and the Home Office Code of Practice.
Here we are then, some fifteen years later still debating the subject. I was aware that a panel of experts had been set up to advise the Government on limits for certain drugs, in the same way we have a limit for alcohol, so I have been waiting for the publication of this report with interest.
The aim of the report was to consider driving ability as it is affected by drug use to ‘establish whether there was sufficient scientific literature to determine[such] a relationship.’
We known that the number of drivers on our roads with drugs in their body has increased. Some of this information it anecdotal, some of it has been gathered through statistics, scientific study and surveys. The report has made much use of the evidence provided from all these sources.
TRL reported in 2010 that fatalities, where illicit drugs were present rose to 20%. Cannabis accounted for 11%, and we know also that the use of Cannabis has declined in recent years, but that’s still a lot of people driving around with this stuff in their body.
The panel report also suggested that the underlying figures for drugs and driving might be far higher than officially reported. Our methods for securing this information is a virtual scattergun effect, culling information from the Police, British Crime Survey, the DVLA medical notifications or ‘MixMag!’ The fact is we know it’s a problem and the urgency in which we need to address it is increasing.
Our ability to determine impairment by the concentration of a substance in the body, according to the scientists, is difficult. And it still is. However the report lays out a number of studies carried out over the years, which seems to have made that determination easier, but panel did not seek to define a degree of impairment through drug concentrations, and gave two reasons as to why:
- ‘No universal agreement on how to objectively measure impairment for psychoactive drugs and driving,’ and
- ‘Defining impairment for several classes of drug would prove too complicated and not sufficiently robust to inform drug drive legislation.’
This gave the panel an ability to form a per se approach to the setting of drug concentrations for drug driving with ‘risk thresholds.’ In other words defining a concentration in the body that would pose an accident risk. For example we know that the accident risk threshold for alcohol is 50mg/100ml blood, although we also know that impairment can start as low as 20mg.
The recommendations of the report to put into legislation, different levels of drug concentrations, although commendable, will open the door to all sorts of legal argument, and legal loopholes. In my view, a zero tolerance approach for the most impairing of drugs would make prosecution far easier in the long term. Any amount of a scheduled drug in the body must attract penalties, surely?
I know there are arguments for and against zero tolerance and per se drug legislation, which I am not going to go into here. Suffice it to say that any advance at this late stage is better than nothing.
They defined a recommended threshold limit in the blood that would pose an accident risk. These thresholds were split into two categories. The threshold of the drug on its own, and the threshold of the drug where alcohol was also present in a quantity greater than 20mg/100ml blood.
For example it recommended that the blood threshold limit for Cocaine would be 80µg/L(Microgram’s per Litre of blood) and with alcohol also in the blood that would be reduced to 40µg/L. Now in the scheme of things that doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s enough to make you an accident risk.
It also looked at and understood the problems with legitimately prescribed drugs, e.g. morphine, codeine and diazepam, and did not recommend any alterations that would change the way current medical conditions are dealt with. That doesn’t mean to say that drivers on those prescribed drugs could not be impaired. The Section 4, driving whilst unfit, offence will still exist in any new legislation.
In general the content of the report is almost a definitive guide to drug concentration levels in drivers – for the drugs it considered. My concern is that there are insufficient road policing officers out there to find these offences now, so when we do get the legislation, like a lot of traffic regulations, our lawmakers will no doubt make it inordinately complicated that most coppers won’t even bother with it. And that would be a shame.
The Government has an opportunity to produce a good piece of well thought out primary legislation, and not, as was reported in Hansard ,when they introduced the breathalyser, ‘something that was less than divinely inspired.’
I hope that the Government moves forward quickly with the panel’s recommendations for the sake of the safety of drivers on our roads.
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