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."
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