Drug driving

Posted on May 30th, 2012 by James Luckhurst

Drug drivingIt’s a busy morning on the outskirts of Newbury and traffic police officers are carrying out a routine check on vehicles and drivers. One officer, the ‘spotter’, is calling out what he spies: expired tax discs, potentially unroadworthy vehicles, drivers on phones and not wearing seatbelts etc. Trade is brisk, and there’s nothing immediately unusual about the young man in a battered old hatchback who’s pulled in for a roadworthiness check.

An officer walks round the car and identifies two bald tyres (the minimum tread depth is 1.6mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre. This one’s as smooth as a skating rink). But then, on speaking to the driver, he steps back as the sweet scent of cannabis hits him. The driver, on his way to college, readily admits to have smoked a ‘joint’ within the past 30 minutes. A suitably trained officer is on hand to take over and put the driver through a series of tests to determine whether or not he is impaired by the cannabis.

In spite of the driver’s admission of having smoked it, the officer determines from the tests that the driver is not impaired and decides that a ‘street caution’ will be sufficient. He gets a £60 penalty ticket and three points for his tyres, but effectively drives away unpunished for his drugs offence.

And there’s the rub. A few minutes later, he will be sharing the story with his pals, concluding that it’s OK to take drugs and then drive, because the ‘old bill’ won’t do anything about it. Not an effective safety message to spread among young people.

But would a scientific test (such as the Belgian police have been able to carry out at the roadside since 2010, and illustrated here) yield a more accurate result? Bear in mind that fat-soluble cannabis can stay in your system for up to a month, long after you have finished being ‘impaired’ by it. So that’s possibly not much use, either.

The European Commission is currently asking police forces across the continent to give feedback on why road death reduction rates appear to have stalled. It fought shy of including anything specific on drug driving when it launched its plan to halve the annual toll of road deaths by the year 2020, giving the reason that it was ‘too difficult an issue’.

Police officers, academic scientists and road safety organisations including GEM know that the way to tackle difficult issues is not simply to pretend that they don’t exist. European organisations have elevated drug-driving to be equal to, or more important than drink-driving, partly because of the difficulties of establishing the extent of the problem.

We think education will have the most significant effect. Giving young people information that it’s dangerous to drive after taking drugs, and that they face tough new penalties if they are caught is a first step, and GEM welcomes the government’s recent announcement of tough new measures in this area.

Getting young people to talk about the issue is vital, too. But there must also be an end to situations such as the one described above, where the youngster involved – and his friends – will make no connection between drugs and risk-taking on the roads.


  • How much of a problem do you think drug-driving really is?
  • Should the very presence of drugs be enough to put you on the wrong side of the law, whether or not you’re impaired?
  • Should there be different rules for different drugs?