15 May 2012
The Queen’s Speech saw the issue of ‘drug driving’ once again gain significant media attention.
Following Sir Peter North CBE QC’s 2011 report
to the Government on the laws surrounding drink and drug driving , the Crime Communications and Courts Bill will make it a specific offence to drive under the influence of certain substances, whilst the Bill has also been prepared to provide the police with further powers to conduct more roadside testing of drivers with so called ‘drugalysers’.
These handheld devices will use a saliva sample to test drivers considered under the influence of drugs at the wheel, in a similar vein to breathalysers. The coalition has indicated a panel of experts
will select those drugs to be targeted during the roadside tests, but is anticipated to include cannabis, ecstasy, heroin and cocaine.
Presently, the Road Traffic Act 1988 (section 4
) states that drivers will be guilty of an offence if the police have sufficient evidence to prove the standard of driving was ‘impaired’ by drugs, with penalties mirroring those of drink driving offences, including a maximum £5,000 fine and a minimum 12 month prison sentence for those found guilty.
It is worth noting that section 4 of the 1988 Act makes no distinction between illegal narcotics and prescription medication when considering the offence of ‘drug driving’.
Presently, the police rely on Field Impairment Assessments to establish if a driver is under the influence of drugs, rather than any scientific, biological data
before being taken to a police station for biological testing under the guidance of a doctor.
Campaigners for law reform hope that the introduction of drugalysers will see a fall in the number of deaths on the road, caused by those under the influence of a range of both legal and illegal narcotics.
The Prime Minister this week praised the family of 14 year old Lillian Groves, who was killed in a road traffic collision in 2010, by an uninsured driver under the influence of cannabis. David Cameron noted the ‘brave campaign’ waged by the Groves family in ensuring the change in the law
, after Lillian’s killer was sent to prison for eight months, before being released half way through his sentence.
Leigh Day & Co acted for Mushtaq Malik, a pedestrian who was involved in a road traffic incident in 2007, involving a driver under the influence of methamphetamine. Mr Malik was one of six pedestrians injured and suffered multiple fractures, de-gloving injuries and a minor head injury, whilst two other victims suffered leg amputations as a result of the driver’s actions
. The driver, with three other previous drug convictions, was sentenced to just four years in prison.
Drug driving has been a long standing issue in need of address by governments, police and the Courts for many years.
Researchers in France have found that taking cannabis almost doubles the risk of being involved in a fatal car crash. The researchers studied the details of over 10,000 fatal car crashes between 2001 and 2003 and concluded that, even after accounting for factors such as the age of the drivers and the condition of the vehicle, cannabis caused a significant number of the fatalities. 2.5% of the crashes were directly attributed to cannabis use
Studies by the transport research agency TRL, found that 1,200,000 drivers had driven under the influence of drugs in the past year and over a third of respondents to TRL’s survey indicated that whilst under the influence of drugs, they felt their driving was either ‘quite safe or very safe
’ showing an alarmingly casual approach to the issue of drug driving, that supporters of the Groves’ campaign and Government announcements will be eager to combat.
However, there are some very real concerns about the proposals submitted within the draft Bill.
Alcohol limits in the blood stream are easily measured and widely accepted limits are agreed as ‘safe’ for the purposes of prosecutions. There has been no detail provided by the Coalition Government on how the hand-held ‘drugalysers’ will detect similar levels of influence amongst differentiating drug types/classifications, quantities taken, time in the blood stream etc.
It is yet to be seen if there will be a focus on analytically detectable thresholds or if the focus will remain on impairment thresholds, if such a threshold can indeed be set.
Impairment thresholds do not seem to be a workable definition for objective, analytical analysis by way of roadside testing and the North report proposes a ‘zero tolerance’ policy to eliminate any other issues on the variable influences drugs may have on drivers.
This approach from the government and police would certainly send a strong signal to the 1.2m drivers driving under the influence of drugs last year, yet as ever, the devil will be in the detail of the draft Bill.
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