The George Michael drug-driving case has thrown the spotlight on the issue of getting behind the wheel whilst impaired by either illegal substances or prescribed medicines. Coincidentally the Michael story hit the headlines on the same day as the RAC Foundation gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on exactly this subject.
The Committee wanted to hear the views of the Foundation and others on the recently published North Review of both drink and drug driving law.
What is clear is that precisely quantifying the scale of drug driving is very difficult; not least because there is a current absence of roadside testing equipment similar to the breathalyser which can detect the presence of alcohol. Technological strides are being made however. The Government has now announced that new detection kit for use in police stations is soon to be trialled and could be rolled out to all police forces within two years.
According to the official stats just 56 fatal and 207 serious injury accidents involving drugs were reported by police in 2008. But Sir Peter says this is likely to be out of all proportion to the reality. Part of the problem – because of the absence of suitable testing equipment – is that when police officers detect excess alcohol they stop the search for drugs because they can obtain a conviction on the basis of the booze alone without the need to carry out laborious, time-consuming Field Impairment Tests – touch your toes, walk in a straight line, that sort of thing – which have then to be followed by blood tests back at the police station before the presence of drugs can be confirmed.
Surveys back up the impression that the DfT-published figures are no more than the tip of the iceberg. One in four 17-24 year-olds say they have been in a car where they believe the driver to be under the influence of drugs.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) thinks there should be a zero tolerance of drivers found to have taken illegal drugs and that proving impairment should not be necessary.
On the drink driving front, the consensus from the hearing was that a new limit of 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood (down from the current 80mg/100ml) was probably a good idea. The Foundation believes it sends out the right message about the social unacceptability of drink driving, but also recognises that it will do little to tackle the hard core of offenders who are already way over the present limit and who pose the biggest threat to themselves and other road users. The Foundation believes it critical that rigourous enforcement accompanies any change to the law.
The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) pointed out that the risk of having a serious accident doubles between 50mg and 80mg. They regard the 50mg limit is appropriate because of the projections of casualty reductions and that it is enforceable, a view echoed by ACPO. That level of lives saved ranges from 43 to 168 in the first year post-implementation according to North.
It was also noted that in continental Europe, on average, there are five times as many breath tests carried out as in the UK. Several countries employ random breath testing such as the Netherlands.
The RAC Foundation thinks there is a strong case for ‘targeted’ random testing with drivers going to and from particular events and premises tested because of the probability they will have been drinking.