We are constantly being told that drugs can severely compromise our ability to drive, causing lapses of attention, disorientation, a failure to accurately assess risks and even aggressive driving.
It might therefore seem absurd to even suggest that certain drugs might actually have a positive impact on driving ability. Yet this is precisely the testimony given by two expert witnesses in a recent trial in Adelaide.
The trial involved 39-year-old mother, Leah Jane Lenarczyk, who hit a 12-year-old boy at a pedestrian crossing after collecting her three children from school on November 8, 2012.
The young boy suffered multiple serious injuries, including a broken leg, collapsed lung, abdominal injuries, skull fractures and facial abrasions.
A blood sample was taken from Ms Lenarczyk about 2 hours after the collision, which indicated that she had a ‘middle level concentration’ of methylamphetamine in her system.
She was charged with ‘aggravated causing serious harm by dangerous driving’ under section 19A(3) of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935.
The offence requires the prosecution to prove that she ‘drove a motor vehicle in a culpably negligent manner, recklessly or in a manner which was dangerous to the public, thereby causing serious harm,’ and that she committed the offence in ‘circumstances of aggravation.’
The circumstances of aggravation alleged by the prosecution were that there was methylamphetamine present in her blood when she committed the offence.
While some Australian jurisdictions such as Western Australia require a person to prove that ‘a collision was in no way attributable to the affect of a drug,’ that requirement does not exist in South Australia.
This meant that when considering whether Ms Lenarczyk had driven in a dangerous manner, ‘the level of methylamphetamine is only relevant if the Prosecution establishes that the accused’s capacity to drive her motor vehicle was diminished. The fact that it is an illicit drug is irrelevant.’
The prosecution argued that Ms Lenarczyk’s negligent driving wss attributable to her failure to pay attention whilst driving, which was in turn caused by the presence of methylamphetamine in her blood.
But Ms Lenarczyk’s criminal defence lawyers argued that while she had indeed ingested the drug, it had not negatively impaired her driving ability.
Expert Evidence Suggests Methylamphetamine Can Have a Positive Impact on Driving Ability
The Court heard evidence from two expert witnesses; Jason White, a professor of pharmacology at the University of South Australia, and Michael Robertson, a clinical forensic toxicologist.
Both experts suggested that methylamphetamine did not affect people in the same way as other drugs such as alcohol, which is known to cause drowsiness and fatigue. While they conceded that methylamphetamine can have adverse side effects such as aggression and psychosis, they asserted that it can also have positive effects.
Professor White stated that ‘both mental and physical performance may be improved by administering the drug’ and that low concentrations of methylamphetamine ‘may have relatively little effect upon driving and may indeed have potential to improve driving performance’ as it increased alertness and decreased fatigue.
Mr Robertson agreed with those observations, testifying that methylamphetamine ‘improved alertness and concentration,’ and that its impact on an individual’s driving ability ‘cannot be reliably predicted based on drug levels alone.’
Significantly, both experts testified that there was no evidence to suggest that Ms Lenarczyk had exhibited any of the symptoms associated with driving whilst under a high level of methylamphetamine, such as drifting in and out of lanes, travelling at high speed, or crossing over into oncoming traffic.
After hearing all the evidence, Judge Beazley handed down his judgment, stating that while Ms Lenarczyk had consumed methylamphetamine, it was ‘not a court of morals.’
He accepted the expert evidence and noted that, because the drug has different effects on different people, ‘there is a need for an individual assessment of the particular driving in a given case,’ and that its effects cannot be determined solely from its concentration in blood.
While His Honour found that Ms Lenarczyk undoubtedly failed to pay full attention to the road at the time of the collision, he stated that because she had not exhibited symptoms consistent with high levels of methylamphetamine use, it could not be said that she was ‘so affected by methylamphetamine that she was incapable of effective control of her motor vehicle.’
Accordingly, His Honour found her not guilty of dangerous driving causing serious harm, which was the most serious offence, but guilty of the lesser charge of ‘aggravated driving without due care and attention.’
What If This Had Occurred in NSW?
In NSW, a person can raise a defence to the charge of dangerous driving occasioning death or grievous bodily harm if they can prove that the harm or death occasioned by the impact was ‘not in any way attributable to the fact that the person charged was under the influence of intoxicating liquor or of a drug or a combination of drugs.’
Expert evidence such as that admitted in Ms Lenarczyk’s case may therefore help a person to avoid a conviction for dangerous driving in similar circumstances.
But this doesn’t mean that you’ll get away scot-free in these types of cases. You can still be charged with negligent driving offences, or with drug driving if drugs are detected in your system – even if it is shown that the drugs had no impact whatsoever on your driving.