Road safety expert calls for greater urgency in tackling drug-driving

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Road safety expert calls for greater urgency in tackling drug-driving

6th January 2012

A road safety expert has called for the government to act now in pushing through it’s proposals on tackling drug driving after a survey revealed that one in nine young drivers has driven on illegal drugs in the last 12 months.

Joanna Bailey, a spokesperson for road safety charity Brake and an expert in road collision injuries said the risks of driving on drugs were huge.

“Road safety charities have been calling for a change in the drug driving laws for some time now,” said Joanna, a partner at Fentons Solicitors LLP. “These changes still haven’t been implemented despite the government pledging action last year.

“For too long now, the law on drug driving has been completely inadequate,” added Joanna. “We need the law tightened so that anyone driving while on illegal drugs can be prosecuted. The longer these changes are delayed the greater the likelihood more people will be injured or killed as a result.”

A survey by Brake and Direct Line found that 3% of drivers aged 17-24 admitted to getting behind the wheel after having taken illegal drugs once a month or more. The numbers of those admitting to such offences was found to have risen from four years ago when 9% of those polled admitted to drug driving.

“At present, whenever someone is suspected of driving whilst under the influence of illegal drugs, the police have to try and prove driver impairment,” said Joanna. “This is often difficult and helps to explain why there are so few convictions. Evidence shows a range of illegal drugs affect the skills, judgment and coordination needed for driving, so it is fair to assume that drivers with these drugs in their system are impaired.

“Our drink-drive laws mean drivers can be prosecuted for having a certain amount of alcohol in their blood, regardless of whether it can be shown that their driving was impaired, but this is currently not the case for illegal drugs,” added Joanna. “Introducing a similar offence for drug-driving would make it far easier to prosecute.”

Ministers have now asked a panel of scientists and academic experts in the field of drug abuse to consider the scientific case for introducing a new criminal offence of driving whilst under the influence of drugs. The panel - which is expected to start work within the next few months - has been asked to provide technical input on the effects of individual drugs such as cannabis and cocaine upon driver’s reactions and performance behind the wheel.

The move has been driven by concerns in Whitehall that while drink driving is now considered relatively easy to enforce, the equally serious offence of drug driving is proving more difficult to deal with effectively.

Among the panel's tasks will be to examine the evidence basis for any new criminal offence, how it could be defined, and whether it is possible, like drink driving, to prescribe levels at which various drugs are known to impair driver reactions and performance. The panel is also expected to examine whether an individual's ability to drive safely could be impaired by the use of prescription drugs or other legally obtained medication as well as the impact of taking a combination of drugs or mixing drugs with alcohol.

At present, suspected drug drivers are required to undertake impairment tests to assess their ability to drive. These can include estimating when 30 seconds have elapsed with their eyes closed, balancing on one leg and walking heel-to-toe in a straight line. Those who are arrested can be asked to provide a blood sample and be examined by a doctor.

“Drug driving is as irresponsible as drink driving,” said Joanna. “Those who choose to drive with drugs in their system are gambling with their own and other people’s lives. We need existing loopholes in the law closed so that drug drivers can be prosecuted more easily without the need to prove impairment. In addition, we need roadside drugalysers - which are still only available for use in police stations - so that police can test for drugs at the roadside and immediately after a crash.”

In May of last year, the government promised to examine whether to introduce a new drug driving law by 2015. According to Department for Transport figures, drug driving was cited by police as a ‘contributory factor’ in over a thousand road traffic accidents in 2010, including 51 fatal accidents.

“The government needs to follow through on its promise to tackle drug driving,” said Joanna. “The longer this law takes to come into effect, the greater the chances more lives will be violently and tragically lost as a result."

How can Fentons help?

Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for victims of road traffic collisions.

If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.

Read more: BBC