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Police may be given powers to test drivers for drugs

Motorists may face roadside drug tests after initial results from a government survey revealed illicit drug-taking has increased fourfold in a decade among those killed in road accidents.

The figures showed that tests on the bodies of 301 car-crash victims revealed that more tested positive for drugs than for alcohol.

Most of drugs detected related to the soft drug cannabis and there were no cases involving cocaine or LSD. There was "very little evidence" of ecstasy found in the bodies, despite estimates there are more than 500,000 regular users of the Class A drug in Britain.

Baroness Hayman, the roads minister, said: "These figures are worrying and show raised levels of drug use among passengers killed as well as drivers."

She said the Home Office police scientific development branch was undertaking work on a possible drugs roadside screening device and were due to report back next spring.

A number of roadside tests are available. One used by police in Germany measures the residual amount of drugs in a driver's sweat. A spokesman for the company, Drugwipe, said: "It enables the officer to assess quickly if the driver has taken drugs. The police would then have the right to arrest the motorist and take a blood or urine sample".

However, a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, said that Drugwipe's product could only test one drug at a time. "The police in this country want something that can test for all illicit substances."

The Government is also discussing with the police how best to enhance officers' ability to detect drug use by drivers. Paul Manning, traffic committee secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that police would have to look "more actively" for "signs of use of drugs and not just alcohol when dealing with drivers."

The preliminary results announced today relate to 301 fatalities since October 1996. Of those that tested positive, 66 were over the legal alcohol limit but 69 were found to have taken drugs, more than 50 of which were illicit. Cannabis was involved in the greatest number of cases - 30. The survey also showed that a quarter of car drivers killed in road accidents were found to have traces of medicinal or illicit drugs in their bodies.

The survey - the first for 10 years - also showed that the presence of medicinal drugs had not changed and that quantities of alcohol in victims had dropped substantially.

Lady Hayman stressed that cannabis remains in the bloodstream for up to four weeks after it is taken, whereas its effect on driving is probably limited to 24 hours at most.

Although there was a big increase in the number of fatalities who had taken two or more different types of illicit drugs, only a handful had mixed alcohol with the drugs to a point where they were over the drink- drive limit. Herein lies a potential hurdle for legislators, who may have to determine what the "safe" level of drugs in the blood would be for drivers. In Germany, law-makers have decided to make even minute concentrations of drugs illegal.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said the figures were "disturbing but not surprising". Road safety adviser David Rogers said: "Roadside testing is already carried out in the USA and if it was tried here, even on experimental basis, it would help to build an even more accurate picture of the situation."