Police officers are to get roadside drug-testing kits as a matter of urgency after David Cameron admitted the Government had been slow to act to make Britain's roads safer.
The Prime Minister believes the time has come for a new separate offence of driving while under the influence of drugs, and has ordered officials to stop dragging their feet on providing equipment to officers. "It's incredibly simple and should be in every police car," he said.
The Home Office had pledged to have kits in every police station by the end of this year, but the deadline will not be met. Mr Cameron admitted it had "taken too long" and promised "to give it a big shunt" to speed the process up. The Prime Minister was speaking to the family of Lillian Groves, 14, who died after being hit by a drug-driver in June last year. John Page, who had been smoking cannabis, admitted causing death by dangerous driving and was sentenced to eight months in jail.
The Groves family has launched a campaign for Lillian's Law, which would remove the need to prove that the presence of drugs had impaired a driver. Few officers are trained in carrying out the roadside tests to assess a motorist's ability to drive. Mr Cameron told the Croydon Advertiser: "We need to get away from impairment. The impairment test is all wrong. It allows you to be a drug taker who is driving and that's not on."
Last night, Downing Street told The Independent on Sunday that ministers were considering creating a new specific drug-driving offence, which would remove the need for the police to prove drug impairment. "We are working to introduce roadside testing as a matter of urgency," a spokesman said. "Driving while impaired by drugs is unacceptable."
The penalties for driving under the influence of drugs are the same as drink-driving, and include a 12-month driving ban, a criminal record, and a fine of up to £5,000. All drug-related convictions also make travelling to the US difficult. Causing death by dangerous driving carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
A review by Sir Peter North last year recommended tougher action against drug drivers. The Home Office is in the process of approving held-held devices that can analyse saliva taken from the mouth of a suspect and provide a result on an LCD screen. However, it could prove difficult for ministers to set a legal limit on an "acceptable" level of illegal drugs found in a driver's blood.
In 2008, drugs were suspected of playing a contributory role in more than 250 fatal accidents, according to the latest figures, but fewer than 170 drug-drivers were prosecuted.
The Commons transport select committee said studies suggested drug-driving "is a fairly common activity". "People assume – quite correctly – that they can take drugs and drive a vehicle with little chance of being caught and convicted," the committed added, and called for devices to screen drivers for drugs.
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