The perils of drink driving are now well documented. We all know that 'one for the road' is a one-way ticket to a driving ban, a serious accident or potentially the death or serious injury of you, your passengers and other road users and pedestrians. By comparison, however, the dangers of driving whilst under the influence of drugs are little known.
In the most recent Queen's Speech the Coalition Government announced plans to introduce new laws to combat driving under the influence of drugs. Although it is already an offence, it is widely believed that drug driving often goes unnoticed and is responsible for more deaths and accidents than can currently be estimated.
Drugs are known to impair driving in a number of ways; as well as impairing your reaction times and concentration drugs can also cause erratic behaviour, nausea, hallucinations, panic attacks, tremors and fatigue.
The current drug driving law
It is currently an offence to drive whilst unfit through the influence of drugs. The Road Traffic Act 1988 part I section 4 makes it an offence to be driving or attempting to drive a vehicle on a road or another public place whilst unfit through drink or drugs.
The law currently imposes the same penalties on drug drivers as is given to those who drink and drive: drug drivers face an automatic, minimum 12-month driving ban, a criminal record and a fine of up to £5,000. The conviction will also affect insurance premiums and will remain on drivers' licences for 11 years.
Problems with the current law
At present if an officer suspects someone of driving under the influence of drugs they may stop them and carry out a Field Impairment Assessment, which involves an American-style coordination test preformed at the roadside. The officer must prove impairment to driving in order to make an arrest.
This is one of the chief issues with the current system, as whilst officers have breathalyser kits to test for alcohol in a sample of breath, the tests currently available for drugs are more subjective and less accurate.
The new proposals for drug driving law
Under the proposed new law announced in May, officers will be given sophisticated new devices to test for a variety of drugs. They will no longer have to demonstrate impairment, as it will be an offence to be driving when you have more than a specified quantity of a legal substance in your body or any illegal substances.
Road Safety Minister Mike Penning told the Press Association that the proposed new laws will send out a message to drug drivers that they will not get away with their actions.
"Drug-drivers are a deadly menace, they must be stopped and that is exactly what I intend to do," he said.
"The new offence sends out a clear message that if you drive while under the influence of drugs you will not get away with it," he added.
Issues with the new drug driving legislation
However, The Independent reports this week that the new legislation may penalise legitimate road-users who suffer from chronic pain and use long-term opiate analgesics including codeine and morphine.
Ministers have stated that the new drug driving laws will cover opioid-based drugs such as heroin but also those prescribed by doctors and used by patients within the recommended doses.
The British Medical Association believes that the new laws could be challenged unless the Government is able to produce clear evidence that exposure to levels of certain drugs impairs driving.
Drug driving law will hit medicine users (The Independent)
Drug driving awareness (Directgov)