BMA calls for tougher drug-drive regulations

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The Independent Online

Tougher action must be taken to counteract the rise in fatal road accidents caused by illegal drugs, doctors' leaders said yesterday.

The use of cannabis and similar drugs was now so common it had begun to pose as big a menace on the roads as alcohol, the British Medical Association (BMA) said.

The number of cannabis users involved in fatal accidents rose from 3 per cent to 12 per cent between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, studies by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory found.

This week, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is expected to announce that an experimental relaxation in the law on cannabis, downgrading it from Category A to Category B, is to be made permanent. The effect of the change, reducing the penalties for possession, is expected to increase consumption.

The BMA has called for a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs. It also wants more research to develop sensitive drug tests. Nearly half of those surveyed aged 16 to 24 have reported using cannabis and more than a third say they have taken hallucinogens, such as ecstasy.

Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said: "Whatever action the Government takes on drug-driving, it is essential it is accompanied by a public awareness campaign. People generally accept you shouldn't drink and drive but probably have no idea about the effects of drugs on their driving ability."

Prescribed drugs, including tranquillisers, painkillers and anti-histamines, could be equally dangerous. "All of these can have a sedative effect, yet most people probably think it is totally safe for them to drive," Dr Nathanson said.

The BMA says urgent research is needed to establish the precise effects of drugs, such as cannabis, which can be found in the blood 28 days or more after use. Cannabis is known to impair co-ordination, visual perception, tracking and vigilance but studies of its effect on driving skills and road safety are inconclusive.

Driving while unfit because of drugs is an offence but there is no legal blood-drug limit. The lack of accurate testing devices makes the legislation very difficult to enforce.

In a briefing for MPs, the BMA says developing accurate tests for drugs poses a considerable scientific challenge. Alcohol tests are based on a clinical understanding of the metabolic rate and excretion from the body as well as its effect on the brain.

Comparable tests to detect drug levels in the body remain elusive because there is a huge range of legal and illegal drugs that have different effects and remain in the body for differing amounts of time.