Prescription To Fix Drug Driving?

Almost one third of drivers who tested positive for illegal drugs were able to pass the roadside “sobriety” tests, according to new research.* This has led the RAC Foundation to question whether the Field Impairment Tests are FIT for purpose?

The research showed that, when carried out by well-trained police officers, the tests have a 66 per cent success rate in spotting drug-impaired drivers.

However, a significant number of drivers who were stopped by the police on suspicion of driving under the influence of drink or drugs were able to successfully complete the Field Impairment Tests despite having drugs such as heroin present in their system.

Field Impairment Tests do not test for the presence of specific substances in the body. They test a person’s ability to carry out tasks involving balance, judgment, and ability to follow complex instructions. They rely on the judgment and experience of the police officer conducting the tests.

Researchers at Edinburgh University are testing a hand-held electronic test system which could make the test more objective. However, the RAC Foundation believes there is an urgent need to roll out roadside drug-testing equipment to detect drug drivers. Drink-driving plummeted when the breathalyser was introduced. Equipment to test for the presence of drugs in the body is being developed by UK scientists but the Home Office has not yet formally approved any equipment.

The fight against drug-driving is also made more difficult by the need to prove not just that the driver has taken drugs but also that their driving is impaired as a result. While it is an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1998 for a person to drive while their “ability to drive properly is for the time being impaired” by drink or drugs, there is no objective test for impairment, no legal definition of impairment in the Road Traffic Act, and no offence of driving in breach of a prescribed limit, as is the case for drink-driving. The RAC Foundation supports ACPO’s suggestion that a positive road-side drug test should be the only evidence needed to take these drivers off the road.

Urgent action is needed because drug-driving is on the increase across the UK, particularly among young drivers (17 - 24):

  • More than a quarter of young people in London know someone who has driven after taking illegal drugs, and one in ten say their friends regularly do this.**
  • In a recent Manchester survey, 45 per cent of drivers questioned had drug-driven and 68 per cent been a passenger in a car driven by someone high on drugs. Only one driver had been tested by police.***
  • During the 2005 Christmas drink-drive crack-down, in England and Wales, one in three drivers tested on suspicion of being impaired by illegal drugs were arrested (540 tests, 178 arrests). In Scotland, the number of drivers arrested in 2005 (40) for driving under the influence of drugs was twice the 2004 number (21).
Even when sober, young people are already more likely to be involved in a road traffic fatality than older drivers. A cocktail of inexperience, alcohol and drugs vastly increases this risk.

The RAC Foundation is calling for:

  • Harmonisation of field impairment tests throughout the UK - at present tests in Scotland include more elements which may give officers further indications of impairment.
  • Field Impairment Test (FIT) training incorporated into basic police training - with regular refresher courses for officers involved.
  • Ongoing monitoring - of the performance of the FIT programme.
  • High-profile policing by properly-trained traffic police - 80 per cent of cannabis users who routinely drive under the influence say they would be deterred by roadside testing. Cameras cannot replace the observational skills of a police officer in identifying and testing a potentially impaired driver.
  • More consistent use of FIT tests by UK police forces - in the 2005 Christmas Drink and Drug Driving campaign, 11 forces conducted no FIT tests at all, while Hampshire police conducted 75, arresting 25 drivers for suspected drug-driving.
  • A hard-hitting multi-media advertising campaign to warn young people of the risks of drug-driving - following earlier pressure from RAC Foundation, TfL have recently launched a pan-London campaign, “Drug Driving - You’d be off your head” to raise awareness among young Londoners of the dangers and penalties of drug-driving.
  • Urgent action by the Home Office to speed up the introduction of roadside testing equipment. A roadside screening device similar in principle to the alcohol breathalyser would make detection and prosecution more straightforward.
  • MPs to debate whether a zero-tolerance policy should be introduced - in Germany, Sweden and Belgium, there is no need to prove that a person’s driving is impaired by the presence of illegal drugs in their system before imposing a penalty.
Sue Nicholson, Head of Campaigns for the RAC Foundation, said: “There has been a sharp increase in the number of young drivers killed on our roads, and we suspect drug-driving may play a large part in this. The latest research shows that some drug-drivers can escape detection by the Field Impairment Tests. While these are the best tests we currently have available to us, we believe there is an urgent need to improve detection techniques and equipment available to our police.” 11 April 2006 Staff

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