High and dry - Drugs the new alcohol?

Conor Faughnan

There is a nasty hidden problem on Irish roads – drugs and driving. 

Of course the nastiest drug on the road is still alcohol, but at least that is a problem that is well understood. There is an abundance of research nationally and globally on the effects of alcohol, so much so that we can comfortably draw up clear rules for permitted levels in the blood. 

For other drugs the research just is not as good. For starters we just use a single word – drugs – to cover a whole range of substances both legal and illegal. 

It is an offence to drive a car while impaired by any drug and the punishment is the same as for drink driving. But proving or even understanding that impairment is not so simple. We know that it is out there, but we do not know how bad the problem is. 

Alarmingly, the Road Safety Authority published research last year which showed one in five people between 17 and 34 years had been a passenger in a car where the driver had taken illegal drugs. Older research from the medical bureau of road safety in 2001 also shed a light on the issue.

 Prior to the introduction of random breath tests for alcohol in 2006 a garda had to “form an opinion” that a driver was impaired before he could stop a vehicle. A study was carried out on blood samples taken where the garda felt the driver was drunk, but the test was negative for alcohol. However 37 per cent of those “sober” drivers tested positive for other drugs.

Unfortunately there is not a reliable roadside tester available to check for the common drugs. It is possible to check if a person has consumed cannabis; a mouth-swab test is used in France, Australia, and some other countries. However traces of cannabis can linger in the body for a long time after any impairment effect has passed. 

So policing the drugs issue is back where alcohol policy was some years ago. The Garda must first form an opinion that the driver is impaired and must then arrest the driver and arrange for a blood or urine sample to be taken. The process is slow and cumbersome and the current rate of about 700 prosecutions per year is having little deterrent effect. 

It is planned to introduce what is termed a “field sobriety test”. Probably best known from American movies, this is the old fashioned check whereby a driver has to walk a line, touch their nose, etc. A driver who fails must provide blood or urine for definitive testing. The Garda have had some training, but cannot use it yet until the planned legal changes are made. 

Most of us are happy with a zero tolerance approach to drug driving, but a note of caution. You might be a drug driver yourself from time to time. Legal medications, particularly when people self-medicate or ignore doctor’s advice, can be just as big a hazard. This is especially so when used in combination with even modest amounts of alcohol.

When your prescription medication says “do not drive or operate heavy machinery” it means exactly that. Drivers have to pay attention to those warnings and to medical advice, not least because your insurance company could refuse to pay out fully in the event of an accident.

The simplest message is say no to drugs, and as a slogan it is none the worse for having been used before. But if you do use any of these substances, legal or illegal, make the moral choice to leave the car keys behind.

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