Taking the high road

With the drug drive testing roll out, Robert Block takes a look at the true effectiveness of drug driving enforcement


The introduction of legislation to combat drug driving, namely the amendments found in the Road Traffic Act, 2016, is a significant conceptual evolution in how the gardaí tackle driving offences. Whereas the focus had primarily been on alcohol as an impairing intoxicant the move to a broader view of the substances that could impact on an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle is both timely and necessary.

According to a World Health Organisation study on drug use and road safety, released in 2016, there is a growing understanding as to how certain intoxicating substances impact a person’s ability to drive. It categorises these substances as falling within three categories: illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, cannabis and methamphetamines; prescription drugs such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines and opioid based pain medicines, and; new ‘psychoactive substances’ such as synthetic highs. Whist this may seem relatively obvious and uncontroversial, it is interesting to see the impact of the various substances on driver ability. Whilst all psychoactive substances will have an impact on a person’s brain and will, as a consequence of this, impair their ability to perform precise tasks – including driving – the reader may be surprised to see the types of substances that are considered to be causative in that impairment.

When various intoxicants are assessed in relation to set criteria such as drowsiness, cognitive functions, motor functions, mood, lateral vehicle control, time estimation and balance there are some truly interesting results. In respect of cannabis, both natural and synthetic, it is found to cause impairment in all the above factors and this is hardly surprising. Similarly, cocaine, methamphetamines and other psychoactive illicit drugs (including synthetic drugs) show significant levels of impairment in most of the criteria but not necessarily to the same level as cannabis. However, it is in respect of prescription medications such as the benzodiazepines, opioids and others that there can be found significant levels of driver impairment. Whilst there is undoubtedly abuse of these prescription drugs – in fact there is a belief that abuse of opioid pain killers is one of the fastest growing drug issues in the United States – there are also numerous individuals who are using such medication in order to cope with chronic conditions and to allow them lead a normal life.

The study also looks at the risks of being involved in a road traffic accident, ranging from damage to property through the risk of injury to fatality in relation to various substances. Again, there are some unsurprising results but also some unexpected data points. Amphetamines naturally attract a significantly high level of risk, including unacceptably high levels of fatalities. Similarly, opiates and benzodiazepines give rise to significantly high risk levels in respect of fatality and injury. However, cannabis – whilst exhibiting broad levels of impairment – appears to have lower levels of risk. This is not to say that it is safe and the above comment should be viewed in comparison to the levels of risk attributed to psychoactive drugs of far greater potency. What is revealing in relation to the risk data is the impact of antidepressants, antihistamines and anti-asthmatic medications, all of which show remarkably similar patterns of risk.

This raises important questions; the most obvious of which is whether persons who are dependent on legitimate medications to live something approaching a normal life be caught under the new anti drug driving regime. Also, whether residual traces of the use of any of the substances be capable of giving rise to a failed drug driving test – even if the trace amount would be incapable of causing driver impairment. It is undoubtedly the case that the approach to the policing of drug driving will have to evolve to provide answers to these questions. But despite any tentative issues that may arise as to how the testing process may work or how anti drug driving policies will be applied in general, there is no doubt that the overall objective of safer roads is to be welcomed.

In terms of effectiveness, the introduction of drug testing regimes in other jurisdictions has been met with various levels of success. In Australia, the introduction of such testing in the early 2000s has met with general approval but is acknowledged as still requiring improvement. The criticisms range from the effectiveness of the testing methods to the requirement for greater post crash testing. Spain is similarly notable for its robust approach to tackling drug driving. The UK has also recently introduced broad ranging anti drug driving legislation which introduces specific levels of intoxicants that may be present in the driver’s system before being deemed over the limit. Whilst there is anecdotal evidence of the success of this move it is probably too early to truly be able to analyse the available data to assess the true level of success it has achieved. However, we should also never underestimate the effect that the publicity surrounding the introduction of new anti drug driving legislation will have on public attitudes and behaviours. It is in this area that the UK has seen some success in relation to the ‘Think!’ drug driving campaign.

The WHO report also looks to the future and considers how anti drug driving policies may evolve in the future. It acknowledges the need for a holistic approach which combines detection and prosecution with treatment and increased public awareness of the risks of driving while intoxicated – regardless of the substance. However, it needs to be recognised that this is a developing area that requires the collation of greater amounts of data before the true impact and effectiveness of the gardaí’s approach to tackling the problem of drug driving can be fully assessed.

As in other jurisdictions, the ability to establish practical and effective thresholds as to the level of intoxicant that can be in an individual’s system at the time of testing will be paramount to the success of the regime. This is because unlike drink driving, where limits can be set very low or at zero in respect of professional drivers, there are different considerations in cases of drug driving. While the concept of drug driving may conjure up images of junkies getting behind the wheel, it may also impact on regular citizens who have to use antihistamines, antidepressants or certain pain medications to be able to get through their day and as such a balanced and considered approach to the enforcement of anti drug driving policies is needed to ensure its future success.

Robert Block is a practising Barrister

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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