Drugs and Driving
There are many drugs that can impair our ability to drive safely. These may be illegal drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and heroin, as well as legal, medicinal drugs, whether prescribed or over-the-counter.
- What constitutes a drug?
- Are all drugs addictive?
- Why do different drugs have different effects?
- Why are they dangerous for driving?
- What does the law say?
- How do the police detect impairment?
What constitutes a drug?
A drug is defined as any chemical you may take that affects the way your body works. Alcohol is a drug. So is caffeine. Nicotine and aspiring are also drugs.. Once inside your brain, a drug can change the messages your brain cells send to the rest of your body.
Are all drugs addictive?
No, but many are. A drug is addictive if you become dependent on the drug. You will have an urge to keep taking the drug, and you are likely to feel very unwell (‘withdrawal symptoms’) unless you keep taking it.
- STIMULANTS make you feel more alert. Caffeine is an example. So are nicotine and cocaine, both of which are addictive as well as dangerous.
- SEDATIVES calm you down. A well-known group of sedatives are benzodiazepines, which include the brand name Valium.
- MIND-ALTERING DRUGS such as cannabis and LSD interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain and have the effect of changing behaviour and mood.
- MEDICINAL DRUGS likely to cause drowsiness will typically carry a clear warning that you should not drive if you are taking them. Travel sickness tablets and some cold/’flu remedies are likely to cause drowsiness.
Why are they dangerous for driving?
It is actually very difficult to determine exactly how a specific drug will impair a specific driver’s ability at any particular time. After all, there are so many variables: the driver, the type of drug or mix of drugs, the dosage and the time since taking the drug will all have some effect on impairment.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that if you have taken a drug with a potential to impair your judgment and ability, you will be in no position to know when it will be safe for you to drive.
Research from coroner post mortems in the UK shows that around 22% – that’s nearly a quarter – of all those killed in road collisions in the UK had illegal drugs in their bloodstream.
It’s also estimated that you are twice as likely to be driven by someone with drugs in their system than being over the drink-drive limit.
What does the law say?
Drug-driving is a serious offence, and carries the same penalties as drink-driving. That means you will face a minimum one-year driving ban and a fine of up to £5,000, or up to six months in prison. Possession of illegal drugs is of course an offence, with severe penalties for possession or intent to supply.
How do the police detect impairment?
Appropriately-trained police officers can carry out roadside tests (known as Field Impairment Tests) to judge whether you’re unfit to drive due to drugs intake. They cannot currently test for the presence of drugs in your body, nor do they make a distinction between the consumption of legal or illegal drugs.
If you are asked to participate in the tests, it is an offence to refuse, just as failure to provide a breath test under suspicion of drink driving is itself an offence.
If a police officer deems you unfit to drive through drugs, you will be arrested and taken to the police station for further investigation. Here, you may be required to submit a sample of blood or urine to determine the presence of specific drugs.
A doctor can also carry out a blood test to see if you have been incapacitated due to medical reasons, such as illness or intake of prescribed medicine.
Q: My daughter wants to go to a party in a friend’s car. I am concerned about possible drug use by the driver. Is there anything I can do?
A: Yes. The first thing is not to let your daughter travel as a passenger in any vehicle driven by that person. But try not to arrive at a situation of potential stand-off like this. Take a step back and do some planning with your daughter. Could you arrange to take her to, and collect her from the party? Could you organise a rota with other parents so that you take your turn every now and then? Have a system in place where your daughter knows she can call you at any time, especially if the only other option is for her to take a risk. Talk things through and agree that neither you nor she would ever want that to happen. And one final tip: if you DO suspect danger or risk-taking, it’s best to deal with it in the cold light of day. Little is usually gained from an on-the-spot confrontation.
Q: If a driver has an illegal drug in their body, that should be the complete offence. Why do the police have to prove impairment?
A: That is what the law says in this country. Many European countries have amended their laws to deal with the suspected enormous rise in drug-driving, so that presence of any drug does complete the offence. There is no requirement to prove that a driver was impaired. The counter argument states that, because some drugs remain in a person’s system for days and even weeks after using them, there can be no hard and fast rule about ‘presence’ of drug; therefore impairment by that drug is the crucial factor.
Q: What are the insurance and other consequences a drug-driving conviction could bring?
A: Your insurance premium will rise significantly once you get your licence back (just as with a drink-drive conviction). There will also be a specific record on your licence for 11 years, detailing a conviction for drug driving. You will also find that any drug-related conviction may mean you are refused entry to other countries such as the USA. Try telling that to your kids when you’re turned back from a holiday of a lifetime to Disneyland!