NSW Police recently announced that they will be tripling the number of roadside drug tests (RDTs), with 100,000 tests set to be administered per year by 2017 in a move that is expected to cost the taxpayer $6 million.
Besides the monetary cost, the increased frequency of operations is expected to absorb enormous amounts of police time and resources – which could arguably be better used investigating serious crime.
But according to police, the increase in RDT is necessary because 11% of all fatal accidents involve a driver who is under the influence of drugs.
Presented with these statistics, one might feel that the increase in tests is a justifiable deterrence measure.
But there are glaring problems with the current testing regime, leading many to conclude that RDT is ineffective and unfair.
Saliva Tests Do Not Test for All Drugs
The mainstream media has largely ignored the fact that Australia’s ‘lick’ tests only test for three substances: cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines – including ‘ice’ and ‘ecstacy’ (or MDMA).
This means that those with illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine and LSD in their bloodstream will beat the test.
RDTs will also fail to detect the presence of many prescription drugs that can affect driving ability, including benzodiazepines, morphine and methadone. This significantly undermines the effectiveness of the current testing regime – especially in light of the increase in prescription drug abuse over the last few years.
It should be noted that, however, that if a police officer reasonably suspects that a driver is under the influence of prescription medication or an undetectable illicit drug, they may arrest and require them to undergo a blood test – which can also form the basis of a drug driving charge.
Unfairness of Drug Driving Charges
As discussed in a previous blog, Australian RDTs simply test for the presence of cannabis, MDMA or ice – they do not determine the actual concentration of the drugs in the bloodstream – and they can detect minute amounts of the drugs.
This means that a person can test positive – and be charged with drug driving – despite having consumed drugs days earlier – even if they are no longer affected by the drugs at all and therefore pose no greater danger than any other driver.
An Evidence-Based Approach
Greens MP David Shoebridge argues that the current system is both unfair and ineffective, noting that:
‘police at roadside tests are routinely waving through drivers who are highly medicated on prescription drugs that they don’t even bother to check for. Some of these drivers will be on doses of drugs that are severely impairing their driving ability.’
He suggests that the unfairness of RDTs could be partially rectified by introducing an ‘evidence-based’ approach.
Shoebridge cites the findings of the Wolff Report into Driving Under the Influence of Drugs, which was recently commissioned by the UK Department for Transport. The Report found that, rather than enforcing an arbitrary zero-tolerance policy, an approach based on blood concentration levels – like random breath testing for alcohol – is fairer and more effective.
Researchers found that cannabis impairs driving ability at concentration of 5 micrograms per litre of blood – or 3 micrograms per litre when consumed with alcohol.
Benzodiazepines were found to have a negative impact at a concentration of 550 micrograms per litre – or half of that when alcohol is present.
Such an approach has already been implemented in the UK with great success. There, ‘safe limits’ have been set for a number of illicit and prescription drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and benzodiazepines – and new roadside drug testing kits have been developed to test for cocaine.
But for some reason, this far more sensible approach has not been considered in NSW, let alone proposed or adopted. In the words of Mr Shoebridge:
‘We know from the Wolff report what levels of drugs impair drivers and the law should reflect this. Policing and road safety deserve intellectual rigour because, at the end of the day, people’s lives are at stake.’
Whether NSW will move towards a fairer and more effective system in the future remains to be seen.