Death On The Roads: Drive to keep drug takers out of cars

More and more motorists are believed to be taking drugs and driving. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, looks at how the police and the Government are trying to find ways of stopping them causing mayhem on the roads.
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Roadside drug tests for motorists suspected of taking illegal substances are to be piloted under plans being examined by the Department of Transport.

More than 100,000 motorists could be driving under the influence of drugs, according to the early findings of a three-year study. It confirmed findings that a quarter of those involved in 465 road-traffic deaths in Britain in the past 11 months had taken drugs. Twenty per cent were illicit substances, mainly cannabis, and 5 per cent were medical drugs.

A police-DoT working group is examining the issue of drug-taking and driving amid evidence that it is one of the fastest-growing motoring problems. National roadside testing is considered inevitable, although there are still problems with developing a workable system.

There are also proposals to prosecute all motorists found with traces of drugs, whatever the amount, in their bodies, which could result in someone who had smoked cannabis weeks before being jailed.

The latest results of the drug-driving testing were discussed at the Superintendents' Association conference in Bristol yesterday. It emerged that the DoT is considering setting up roadside drug tests in a number of police forces in about nine months. Officers are expected to use body wipes which can detect individual drugs.

The wipes are attached to a short stick and rubbed against the suspect's forehead and neck. It changes colour if a drug is detected, although only one substance can be tested at a time.

Motorists taking part in trials would be volunteers and would escape arrest if positively tested unless their driving was considered impaired.

The police scientific branch is working on developing a roadside test and is expected to report in spring.

If a practical testing system is developed and the Government changes the law to allow roadside stops, the police believe a national scheme could be operating within three years.

Superintendent David Rowe, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' working party looking on the issue, yesterday called for a zero- tolerance rate for motorists found with drugs in their bodies. It was too difficult to set limits and to let off motorists found to have taken illegal substances was "tantamount to condoning drug taking".

If a zero limit was set, motorists who took substances such as cannabis, which can remain in the bloodstream for up to four months, could be prosecuted long after the drug remained potent.

This could lead to allegations that the police were deliberately targeting certain groups considered to be heavy drug-users.

Supt Rowe said the problem they had uncovered was the "tip of the iceberg": of 679,000 people who gave a negative breath test in 1996, up to 120,000 could have taken drugs if the recent survey reflected the national picture.



Incidence of drugs in road accident fatalities

No drugs detected 351

Amphetamines 10

Cannabis 43

Cocaine 0

Opiates 14

Methadone 3


Benzodiazepines 10


Antidepressants 3

Multiple drugs 31

Total 465