Motorists to face roadside drug tests

Police to use handheld machine giving fast results from next year

New technology that can test drivers for illegal drugs in as little as90 seconds will be ready for police use as early as next year, The Independent has learnt.

Government officials are keen to approve the roadside gadgetry "as soon as possible", with developers working to have the devices ready for use by the second half of next year. The breakthrough technology will allow police officers to test drivers for heroin, cocaine, cannabis, methamphetamines and amphetamines by testing a swab of a driver's saliva in a handheld device.

Roadside testing has been hampered in the past by the slowness of the process, which can take about 10 minutes. Other effective drugs tests require a urine sample, making them difficult to implement for drug-driving tests.

The Transport minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, wants to crack down on those who use a car while under the influence of drugs, including legal drugs that can impair concentration. Up to a fifth of drivers killed in road accidents are found to have drugs in their system.

An older version of the technology is already being used by the Home Office to test offenders for drugs. They are also used for roadside testing by police in countries including Australia, Italy and Croatia.

A swab of saliva is placed in a handheld tester the size of a chip-and-pin machine. Officers are then told whether the driver has passed or failed the test and which drugs have been detected.

A source at the Department for Transport said: "We are working very closely with the Home Office to make sure the approval document needed for roadside devices is completed as soon as possible. We are serious about tackling the problem of drug-driving."

Talks have been held between the company producing the technology, Concateno, and the Department for Transport. Philip Hand, a consultant with Concateno, said: "The new system will be easy for police to use and appropriate for roadside tests. We are hoping to receive the necessary approval before the devices are ready to be rolled out at the end of the year."

The Government plans to create legislation to bring drug-driving in line with drink-driving. Other measures proposed in its road safety consultation, published yesterday, include a plan to ban drivers who are twice caught exceeding a speed limit by 20mph. The Government is also considering a lowering of the legal alcohol limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg – the level most commonly used throughout the EU.