Road safety charity Brake calls for urgent changes to drug driving laws

Government urged to close 'loophole' as survey finds one in nine young motorists admit driving after taking drugs

by Simon_MacMichael   January 5, 2012  

Joint (picture credit Chmee2:Wikimedia Commons).jpg

Road safety charity Brake and motor insurer Direct Line have urged the government to tighten up laws regarding motorists who drive after they have taken illegal drugs. The call to action coincides with publication of results of a survey in which one in nine drivers aged between 17 and 24 admitted having driven while on illegal drugs during the past year.

Driving after taking illegal drugs is not an offence as the law currently stands; prosecutors also have to prove that the substance also caused impairment of the motorist’s ability to drive.

The relevant legislation is section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which says that “a person who, when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs is guilty of an offence.”

No distinction is made there between prescription drugs and illegal ones, but Brake is asking the government to close what it describes as “a loophole” when it comes to illegal drugs, calling for what would in effect be a zero-tolerance approach.

The charity, which is being supported in its efforts by the family of 14-year-old Lillian Groves, who died from injuries received after she was hit by a car driven by a man who had been smoking cannabis, is also pressing for the government to authorise roadside testing kits so that police can test for drugs immediately at incident scenes.

It is also urging the government to move ahead with implementation of proposals contained in a 2010 review of drink and drug driving that former Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond announced last year would be implemented by the Department for Transport.

Brake and Direct Line say that the survey they commissioned found that there had been a slight rise in the proportion of young motorists saying that they had driven after taking drugs compared to four years ago; moreover, 3 per cent of 17-24 year old drivers admitted doing so at least once a month.

But as the death of Lillian Groves shows, the problem is not confined to young drivers. The case also highlights the ‘loophole’ that Brake is seeking to get closed.

John Page, the driver in that case, was aged 36 when his vehicle struck the teenager outside her home in New Addington, near Croydon, in June 2010. She died early the following morning in hospital.

Police found a half-smoked cannabis joint in Page’s car, but a nine-hour delay before a blood test was conducted meant that although he tested positive for the substance, the levels were not high enough for his driving to be deemed to have been impaired.

As a result, he could not be charged with causing death by driving under the influence of drugs, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment.

Instead, he was charged with causing death by careless driving and causing death whilst driving uninsured. He received a four-month prison sentence – as it turned out, he would be freed after eight weeks – and was banned from driving for two years.

The victim’s aunt, Michaela Groves, said: "Lillian's death has devastated our family. It's left a gaping hole that simply cannot be filled. We will never see her grow up into the wonderful woman we know she would have been. I'm pleading with drivers young and old to commit to never take drugs and drive. It's an atrocious risk that could easily end in death or serious injury."

Ellen Booth, Brake senior campaigns officer, said: "The risks of driving on drugs are huge, and the consequences devastating – yet a huge proportion of young drivers are taking this appalling gamble with their own and others' lives.

“We need all drivers to pledge to never mix drugs and driving, and we need the government to follow through with its commitment to tackle this problem. For too long the law on drug driving has been totally inadequate.

She added: “We need a ban on driving with illegal drugs in your system, and we need roadside drugalysers. The longer this takes, the more lives will be violently and tragically lost."

Andy Goldby, Director of Motor Underwriting and Pricing for Direct Line Car Insurance, commented: "Drug driving is as irresponsible as drink driving. The effects of drugs can often leave people feeling overly confident or extremely relaxed, both of which are known to lead to dangerous driving behaviours.

“We need the loopholes closed and action taken to ensure those who drive under the influence of drugs, are able to be prosecuted more easily."

A Review of Drink and Drug Driving Law, commissioned by the former Labour government’s Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, was published in 2010.

Its author, Sir Peter North said that “it appears that there is a significant drug driving problem, which is out of all proportion” to that suggested by official statistics.

He concluded that because drivers who had taken drugs were often found to be over the alcohol limit, many instances of drug-driving were not being recorded as such and were instead being treated solely as drink-driving cases, assuming police even investigated the drugs angle in the first place.

Last March, Lord Adonis’s successor, the Conservative Philip Hammond, responding to the North Report, said: “Drink and drug driving are serious offences and we are determined to ensure they are detected and punished effectively.

“It is just as dangerous to drive impaired by drugs as alcohol so we need to send a clear message that drug drivers are as likely to be caught as drink drivers and that drug driving is as socially unacceptable as drink driving has become. That is why we will approve drug-testing devices and change the law to speed up the testing process, ensuring the police can bring drug drivers to justice.”

He added: “On drug driving the Government will:

• approve preliminary drug-testing equipment - initially for use in police stations, and at the roadside as soon as possible. The Home Office is currently testing six drug-testing devices and hopes to be able to take decisions on type-approval by the end of June.

• allow custody nurses to advise the police whether or not a suspected driver has a condition that may be due to a drug. This will remove the need to call out police doctors and so speed up the testing process – ensuring that drug drivers do not escape punishment because a doctor is not available and also freeing up police time.

• examine the case for a new specific drug driving offence – alongside the existing one – which would remove the need for the police to prove impairment on a case-by-case basis where a specified drug has been detected."
 

19 user comments

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Load of rubbish.

If someone kills someone else with their vehicle then it should be irrelevant whether they're under the influence, or just a careless, stupid b*gg*r.

As with the usual procedure for drink-driving (perform some physical test to show whether you're capable of following a straight line, the same thing should be done for *any* driver who is stopped by the police on suspicion of dangerous driving. The effects of drugs are no more or less moral than bad-eyesight, simple ineptitude, or whatever.)

Brake are irrelevant busybodies getting off on creating moral panics.

More 20-is-plenty zones with enforcement of _that_ instead thanks.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
5th January 2012 - 1:43

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Moral panic? They're not asking for drugs to be treated differently from drink simply the same. That hardly smacks of moral panic to me.

Totally agree about enforcement of 20mph zones, but I wonder if illegal drugs were treated the same as alcohol across the board whether that might not free up a chunk of police time to actually enforce 20mph limits.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4131 posts]
5th January 2012 - 10:04

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Actually, it's not a load of rubbish at all, quite the opposite in fact.

One recent study points out that around 10% of drivers aged 17-24 drive while under the effects of various drugs. Given that male drivers in this group are already one of the highest risk categories for accidents due to acknowledged shortcomings in judgement/risk taking behaviour, it is of major concern. The DfT has data showing use of drugs was a contributory factor in 1,094 road accidents occuring in 2010, of which 51 were fatal.

Extensive research shows that there are links between drug taking, criminal activity, driving while uninsured and/or without a licence and/or in a defective vehicle. The risk taking behaviour exhibited by regular drug users and criminals (and there is a great deal of overlap between the two) is also reflected in their driving. Insurance companies often ask people now if they have criminal convictions as research shows criminals exhibit risk taking behaviour in all aspects of life, including driving. Statistics show that convicted criminals have far higher rates of road crashes, as well as a high incidence of regular drug use.

The new laws are very definitely needed.

At the moment, police are only able to ask drivers suspected of being at the wheel while under the influence of drugs to carry out five simple ability tests. These include walking in a straight line and counting up to or down to 30. Anyone failing the tests will then have to give a blood sample. But because the laws are so weak, police often don't carry out these tests and check for alcohol use instead amongst suspects, as the procedures and laws for alcohol use by drivers are clearly set out.

At the moment the UK Govt has an expert panel working on a framework for new laws. But these will not be easy to set out as they will have to take into account issues such as the use of over the counter or prescription medication as well as illegal drugs. The framework also has to be able to determine which combinations of legal and illegal drugs and alcohol can cause a threat. As cannabis can remain in the bloodstream for up to one month after consumption while its main effects to ability lessen after around 24 hours, there is a debate on whether the new laws should reflect a zero tolerance policy or on when the drugs were consumed. And with synthetic opiates used in some over the counter medicines, even tests for heroin could be required to have limits.

The Australian police are now successfully using saliva testing kits that will give a result within 5 minutes and various versions of these have been trialled in the UK. It is likely these will be introduced to the UK police once the new laws are in place.

There's a lot of data available on this subject Ush. You may not like what it says, but it's there for public view and there is extensive research to back it up that's been carried out in several countries, not just the UK. Go and look at the Brake website and the DfT website and even the FHWA or NHTSA websites in the US.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
5th January 2012 - 11:59

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While no-one who kills as a motorist should ever be seen as blameless - when handling a lethal weapon it is reasonable to expect an exaggerated level of care and attention to how you handle it - and while in certain respects, such as murder/attempted murder, we distinguish between outcomes in punishing offenders, the foundation of our justice system is mens rea. That is, what is going on in the offender's mind. Killing through slight inattention should not be as harshly punished as through speeding, intoxication, overtiredness, or known uncorrected deficiency in faculties like sight or hearing. They in turn merit more consideration than road rage, racing against another motorist, speeding to flee a crime scene etc, or "aggravated" offences.

posted by Paul M [305 posts]
5th January 2012 - 18:17

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A nine hour delay is unacceptable as the police would have been aware of drug use due to the half smoked joint. They would not have waited 9 hours before testing for alcohol had a half drunk bottle of whisky been found. The police have failed badly here,IMO.

posted by alun [44 posts]
5th January 2012 - 21:32

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posted by iamelectron [102 posts]
6th January 2012 - 0:19

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OldRidgeback wrote:

One recent study points out that around 10% of drivers aged 17-24 drive while under the effects of various drugs.

And are 10% of the accidents involving 17-24 yrold drivers attributable to drugs?

OldRidgeback wrote:

Given that male drivers in this group are already one of the highest risk categories for accidents due to acknowledged shortcomings in judgement/risk taking behaviour, it is of major concern.

Maybe a sex-test would be in order then?

OldRidgeback wrote:

The DfT has data showing use of drugs was a contributory factor in 1,094 road accidents occuring in 2010, of which 51 were fatal.

How many accidents occurred in which the driver took drugs and there was no contribution to the accident?

OldRidgeback wrote:

Extensive research shows that there are links between drug taking, criminal activity, driving while uninsured and/or without a licence and/or in a defective vehicle.

You're observing a correlation between A and B and inferring that B causes A. A *lot* more needs to be done before you can argue that e.g. mild cannibas use causes increased accident rates. Further you're lumping all proscribed drugs into the same hysterical category of "drugs".

All of that however is beside the point that it shouldn't matter whether I, or any other cyclist, is killed by a sober, upright, church-going fool who made a momentary lapse of judgement while they scratched their crotch as they hurtle at 50mph past me, or a young drug-taking criminal. Unless you can show that the majority of deaths are the preserve of the latter then it might be worth putting more police attention into diminishing the deaths due to the former.

OldRidgeback wrote:

There's a lot of data available on this subject Ush. You may not like what it says, but it's there for public view and there is extensive research to back it up that's been carried out in several countries, not just the UK. Go and look at the Brake website and the DfT website and even the FHWA or NHTSA websites in the US.

BRAKE are the charity that quoted the notoriously inaccurate Thompson, Rivara, Thompson paper in support of their pushing of helmet compulsion -- you may be right in your assessment, but citing BRAKE as any sort of source makes me question your credibility on this topic.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
6th January 2012 - 1:05

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So to follow your logic through Ush you'd like to see the drink driving laws scrapped too and more police time spent cracking down on bad driving?

I don't see how not having a drug driving law frees up police resource to concentrate on bad driving or indeed how less of an emphasis on drink driving would.

You have to have been observed driving badly/erratically in the first place to get breathalysed or, under the proposed rule changes, to face a similar test for drugs. You will also get tested as a matter of course if you've been involved in an incident particularly ones that involves injury or loss of life - don't see why that shouldn't apply to drug driving too?

The rules on drink driving and by extension drug driving are their to deter people from driving when their mood, judgement and reaction times are impaired - seems logical to me that if a widely available legal impairment to your driving ability is is going to get you penalised then so should widely available illegal impairments.

If there were no drink or drug driving laws the police wouldn't stop any more people than they do already, although there might be more bad drivers to stop - the only difference would be that they wouldn't be able to charge them with getting behind the wheel of a car when they were unfit to drive. Not sure that sounds like progress to me.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4131 posts]
6th January 2012 - 10:57

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alun wrote:
A nine hour delay is unacceptable as the police would have been aware of drug use due to the half smoked joint. They would not have waited 9 hours before testing for alcohol had a half drunk bottle of whisky been found. The police have failed badly here,IMO.

Its rarely that simple. Tests for alcohol can be done immediately on a breath testing machine. Drugs need a blood sample which can only be taken by a doctor, who can only be requested once the driver is booked into custody.

Take a busy night, with full cells and lots of people in the custody queue, plus an out of hours doctor to be called out, and I can see why it could take some time to arrange. However, for such a serious case one would hope things could have been speeded up. I would expect the reasons for the delay to have been examined by the court and the police.

posted by don_don [149 posts]
6th January 2012 - 12:51

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tony_farrelly wrote:
So to follow your logic through Ush you'd like to see the drink driving laws scrapped too and more police time spent cracking down on bad driving?

I actually would. I'd like much stricter enforcement of the rules which pay attention to how someone is *behaving* on the road. Again, it doesn't matter to Dead-Me whether the person killing me was just speeding to get to work, or tired from a late shift (as happened with a recent local accident), or just "unlucky".

Lower speeds, stricter enforcement of the simplest aspects of the vehicle code and swingeing penalties (revocation of the privileges of the driving license) are what I'd prefer.

tony_farrelly wrote:

You have to have been observed driving badly/erratically in the first place to get breathalysed or, under the proposed rule changes, to face a similar test for drugs.

Yes. So I've been observed *behaving* in a problematic way. Why does anything extra need to be added to that?

tony_farrelly wrote:

You will also get tested as a matter of course if you've been involved in an incident particularly ones that involves injury or loss of life - don't see why that shouldn't apply to drug driving too?

So, if I'm *behaving* in a problematic way and I get a drug/drink test and am cleared does that make my *behavior* less reprehensible? All these rules do is serve to exculpate and normalize the appalling, non-drug/drink caused behaviour of the vast majority of motorists and provide a convenient distraction in the form of the young criminal minority that OldRidgeback described.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
6th January 2012 - 14:08

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Ush wrote:
So, if I'm *behaving* in a problematic way and I get a drug/drink test and am cleared does that make my *behavior* less reprehensible?

No obviously not. It's more a matter of two things: proof and prevention. If someone is driving badly (which they usually will have been if stopped and tested) then it is easier to prove, without any doubt, that they were in breach of drink/drug driving laws than that they were driving 'dangerously' or below whatever standard is set for the charge. And if someone is caught over the limit, even if they haven't yet been observed *behaving* badly, then the fact that they are committing an offence is used to prevent them continuing, with impaired reactions, and later causing an accident which they could have avoided if they were sober, and to deter them from doing it again.

Ush wrote:
All these rules do is serve to exculpate and normalize the appalling, non-drug/drink caused behaviour of the vast majority of motorists and provide a convenient distraction in the form of the young criminal minority that OldRidgeback described.

That's a bit topsy turvy, isn't it? Say A is drunk/drugged driving. B is bad driving. A causes things (impaired reaction times and decision making) which contribute to B. B is bad. A is bad too. Saying that A is bad doesn't mean B is condoned. And the law follows that.

And in reality, the *vast majority* of drivers aren't that bad. Not saying they are perfect, but it could be a lot worse than it is - it's just that it's easy to remember all the bad ones. I can't remember a specific instance where a car did a good overtake and gave me enough room, but I'm sure it happens all the time, because I complain bitterly when they get too close and that only happens a few times a ride (whereas hundreds of cars pass me on each ride).

posted by step-hent [644 posts]
6th January 2012 - 14:40

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Ush wrote:
OldRidgeback wrote:

One recent study points out that around 10% of drivers aged 17-24 drive while under the effects of various drugs.

And are 10% of the accidents involving 17-24 yrold drivers attributable to drugs?

OldRidgeback wrote:

The DfT has data showing use of drugs was a contributory factor in 1,094 road accidents occuring in 2010, of which 51 were fatal.

How many accidents occurred in which the driver took drugs and there was no contribution to the accident?

OldRidgeback wrote:

Extensive research shows that there are links between drug taking, criminal activity, driving while uninsured and/or without a licence and/or in a defective vehicle.

You're observing a correlation between A and B and inferring that B causes A. A *lot* more needs to be done before you can argue that e.g. mild cannibas use causes increased accident rates. Further you're lumping all proscribed drugs into the same hysterical category of "drugs".

All of that however is beside the point that it shouldn't matter whether I, or any other cyclist, is killed by a sober, upright, church-going fool who made a momentary lapse of judgement while they scratched their crotch as they hurtle at 50mph past me, or a young drug-taking criminal. Unless you can show that the majority of deaths are the preserve of the latter then it might be worth putting more police attention into diminishing the deaths due to the former.

OldRidgeback wrote:

There's a lot of data available on this subject Ush. You may not like what it says, but it's there for public view and there is extensive research to back it up that's been carried out in several countries, not just the UK. Go and look at the Brake website and the DfT website and even the FHWA or NHTSA websites in the US.

BRAKE are the charity that quoted the notoriously inaccurate Thompson, Rivara, Thompson paper in support of their pushing of helmet compulsion -- you may be right in your assessment, but citing BRAKE as any sort of source makes me question your credibility on this topic.

If you don't like the Brake website, try the DfT, FHWA or NHTSA ones.

And yes, there is a link between taking behaviour patterns exhibited by young males and criminals - research shows they lack judgement abilities. Throw in the fact that both groups figure highly as users of illegal drugs and the problem gets worse. I did explain that the panel is trying to analyse the different legal and illegal drugs as well as alcohol and various combinations of all, so as to determine a framework for enforcement. Prescription and over the counter medication can have serious effects on driving ability, which is why some packs have a warning on them. Not all people taking medication look at these advisory notices - and even small amounts of some medication such as antibiotics or painkillers like paracetomol can have very large effects on ability to drive when taken with even only small amounts of alcohol that would otherwise slip under the radar with regard to a conventional breath test. And it all depends on what you class as mild cannabis use.

The UK has amongst the safest roads in the world. Italy and Thailand have broadly similar population levels. Italy, where enforcement of speeding, drink driving and seatbelt use is much more relaxed, has roughly twice the annual fatality rate on its roads as that of the UK. In Thailand enforcement of road rules is lesser still and the country has around 10x the fatality rates on its roads/year of the UK.

I cannot imagine a scenario in which the UK police forces would abandon their current enforcement policies on the use of alcohol while driving, or for that matter why anyone would want them to.

The problem that the police face with regard to tackling drivers under the influence of drugs, is that the current legal framework is weak and difficult to enforce.

You may not agree with the government's tack on this, but these changes are coming and I think most road users would tend to agree that the policy is no bad thing at all. If you don't like it, there's nothing to stop you from going to your MP and putting forward an alternative solution. It is your democratic right.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
6th January 2012 - 22:38

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OldRidgeback wrote:

And yes, there is a link between taking behaviour patterns exhibited by young males and criminals - research shows they lack judgement abilities.

I can well believe that -- however that's not what's at issue. What needs to be shown is that the use of particular drugs in particular amounts results in disproportionate levels of accidents.

OldRidgeback wrote:

Throw in the fact that both groups figure highly as users of illegal drugs and the problem gets worse.

Again, so why not run a sex-test after the police stop someone for behaving in a manner that causes concern?

OldRidgeback wrote:

The UK has amongst the safest roads in the world. Italy and Thailand have broadly similar population levels. Italy, where enforcement of speeding, drink driving and seatbelt use is much more relaxed, has roughly twice the annual fatality rate on its roads as that of the UK.

Obviously that can't be anything to do with their enforcement of speeding laws and seatbelt usage and _must_ be because Italians drink more.

OldRidgeback wrote:

In Thailand enforcement of road rules is lesser still and the country has around 10x the fatality rates on its roads/year of the UK.

Does Thailand have ten-times the drug usage of the UK? Or is there some other relevance to this statistic?

OldRidgeback wrote:

I cannot imagine a scenario in which the UK police forces would abandon their current enforcement policies on the use of alcohol while driving, or for that matter why anyone would want them to.

Unfortunately I can't imagine it either. Motorists continue to routinely conduct themselves in ways which are unsafe, blatant violations of the rules of the road and uncivil. All while perfectly sober. As a result many of us and them die. Nothing exemplifies this culture of normalized idiocy than the recent extension of the speed limits in recognition of the fact that most motorists routinely flouted these laws.

Rest easy. You'll have yet another law criminalizing people's lifestyles while the majority problem is ignored.

Look at the case of the 14-year old girl quoted in the original article: the penalty for killing a child with your vehicle is simply 4-months in jail if you can be shown not to be under the influence. And yet BRAKE and your goodself chose to chase the phantom of "drug-taking youths" instead of simply cranking up the penalty for snuffing out a child's life. The f*ck*r will probably have a license again soon -- it's practically a "democratic right" to drive a car.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
7th January 2012 - 2:56

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I think you've got the wrong end of several sticks there Ush.

The bit about the framework to form a basis for the new law is that it will try and determine allowable limits for an array of different drugs, legal and illegal, as well as combinations of them and also with alcohol.

The data shows that yes, a combination of drug use and youth does indeed ramp up the risk of accident.

Thailand has quite a high rate of drug use. I don't know if there are statistics to compare use rates with the UK. But then a lot of Brits go to Thailand with that intention. The point is that enforcement is minimal.

Bear in mind that most cyclists are motorists as well. The increase in the speed limit on the motorway reflected the fact that motorways are the UK's safest roads and that the 70mph limit was set by rule of thumb measure - modern cars have far better brakes and crash protection.

The guy who caused that accident may well get his licence back in a few years. But the cost of insurance may well keep him from driving, legally, for many years.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
7th January 2012 - 10:38

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We'll have to agree to disagree.

I think that you've missed the point that a society that uses motoring as its primary means of transport is an inherently unsafe one. I don't believe that targeting a small group of probably more unsafe users does anything to reduce the major threat to cyclists, motorists and pedestrians: monkeys travelling at high speeds in heavy vehicles.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
7th January 2012 - 16:27

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Two points here;

1: walking in straight lines, counting up and down etc are not used by Police - as the account states we arrest for Sect 4 - unfit through drink or drugs. Basically you get them into the nick and perform a breath test. If the test is negative we call a Dr to take blood. That is then sent off for analysis.

2: A quote by Alun - As a serving cop I agree 9 hours is completely unacceptable and the officer should be bollocked for it !

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it. Gaius Julius Caesar.

stumps's picture

posted by stumps [2642 posts]
7th January 2012 - 16:42

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Life is unsafe Ush. But it's not as dangerous as it was. People drive cars cos they're useful and versatile.

Road safety is inherently better than it was 20 years ago. We have more cars on the roads in the UK and about half of the fatalities. That's because we have better enforcement. And to make the enforcement better still, we need a proper framework to tackle the risk of people driving while under the influence of drugs. It is a common problem and it cannot be properly police under existing laws.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
7th January 2012 - 23:37

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OldRidgeback wrote:

Road safety is inherently better than it was 20 years ago. We have more cars on the roads in the UK and about half of the fatalities. That's because we have better enforcement.

Yes, the massive changes in automobile design (airbags, seatbelts, crumplezones, ABS braking, removal of large chromed knobs facing drivers, etc) are most probably not the reason for reduced deaths. Another law targeting law-breakers will probably be useful.

posted by Ush [377 posts]
8th January 2012 - 9:56

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Yes, exactly that Ush. A new law giving police a proper framework for targeting those driving under the influence of drugs while at the wheel will indeed help.

Proper traffic policing would help. I see a lot of vehicles on my commute that are clearly not roadworthy, ranging from issues that are easily addressed such as missing tail-lights or flat tyres to some very serious defects such as twisted chassis. Plenty of drivers obviously flaunt the law, driving too close to other road users, not wearing seatbelts, using cellphones while at the wheel and smoking cannabis while driving and on my 25km commute to work, I generally see at least one of each of these. The crackdown on speeding using speed cameras in recent years has completely overlooked problems like these.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
8th January 2012 - 22:52

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