The Dangers of Drug Driving

As our drink-drive culture shrinks into a memory of years gone by, a new challenge to society and its authorities has evolved almost unseen. Drug Driving is at least as hazardous for drivers, passengers and other road users as drink driving. And in the UK and other countries, the penalties for driving while Unfit through Drugs are the same or equivalent to those for driving while unfit through alcohol.

Almost a quarter (22%) of those killed in the UK in road traffic accidents (RTAs) have drugs in their system - and the number is increasing. Drug driving is commonest amongst 20-24 year olds, and within that age group, most common amongst clubbers - indeed, the Scottish Executive's Road Safety Campaign's survey amongst clubbers led them to conclude that 81% had driven after recreational drug use.

The most common drug amongst drivers is cannabis. At the Universite Claude Bernard in France researchers have found that smoking cannabis almost doubles the risk of being involved in a fatal car crash - and cannabis does not just affect the driving, but the drug's effect on the human body can make the driver more likely to die themselves.

The effects of drugs on driving

It can be very difficult to predict a drug's effect on driving, especially when combined with other drugs or with alcohol. Research shows the main dangers to drivers are as follows:

Cannabis - concentration can wander, reaction times can slow and people can suffer from paranoia, drowsiness, disorientation and distorted perception.

Cocaine - distorted perception, and a feeling of over-confidence that can lead to aggressive driving. Any feelings of alertness soon fall away leading to the risk of the driver falling asleep.

Ecstasy - distorted vision and sound, reduced concentration and over-confidence can lead to taking inappropriate risks.

Ketamine, LSD and magic mushrooms - drivers may put themselves, their passengers and other road users in danger by reacting to things and events that are only in their mind. Co-ordination typically suffers, and drivers may experience blurred vision and anxiety.

Speed (amphetamine) - any feelings of heightened confidence and alertness can be very dangerous as perception becomes distorted, leading to panic attacks, anxiety and loss of co-ordination.

Trends in drug use in the UK (DrugScope, July 2009)

1. 3% of 16-59 year olds reported using cocaine powder in 2008/9, compared to 2.4% in 2007/8
2. 6.6% of 16-24 year olds reported using cocaine powder in 2008/9, compared to 5.1% in 2007/8

- 1.9% of 16-24 year olds reported using ketamine in 2008/2009, compared to 0.9% in 2007/8

- 7.9% of 16-59 year olds reported using cannabis in 2008/9, compared to 7.6% in 2007/8 - the second lowest level of increase in the past eleven years

Some facts about drug driving

1. In Germany, in 2008, roadside drug tests were carried out on approximately 150,000 drivers. Some 34,000 were prosecuted for drug driving

2. In the UK, the Railways and Transport Safety Act of 2003 allows roadside testing of drivers for drugs present in drugs or saliva. Yet, the government has not approved a single device capable of carrying out the required tests. Meanwhile, in Europe and Australia, currently available equipment is being used to perform thousands of roadside tests.

Reducing drug driving and increasing road safety

In the UK, like in other countries, the authorities are clamping down on those who may cause death and injury through drug driving. But, as well as the threat of the law, we must clearly communicate the risks to younger people, many of who do not realise that drugs impede their driving abilities and that drug driving carries the same penalties as drink driving.

Improved road safety will be as the result of better informed drivers and cultural attitude change, as well as exercising legal punishments.

David Williams MBE is the Chief Executive of GEM Motoring Assist, a leading road safety organisation in the UK. GEM Motoring Assist is a multi award-winning breakdown provider renowned for the quality and value of its services.

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