With the rise in illicit drug use, federal and state governments adopted drug driving laws to help keep impaired drivers off the road. The reasoning was that some drugs may inhibit people’s ability to make sound decisions while driving. But not everyone thinks that the legislation is actually doing its job.
New South Wales magistrate David Heilpern recently criticised current drug driving laws for being ‘grossly unfair’. Mr Heilpern stated that the laws don’t necessarily prevent impaired drivers from hitting the road. He said there isn’t enough evidence to prove that drug driving laws are working, unlike other similar legislation.
But is Mr Heilpern right? Are drug driving laws really ineffective at curbing impaired driving? Our Chief Toxicologist Dr Phil Tynan doesn’t think so.
Limitations of Drug Driving Laws
In a recent interview with local media, Mr Heilpern discussed his issues with his duties, particularly when hearing drug driving cases. He found it difficult to take away people’s license because they were caught driving while impaired.
Under NSW laws, authorities suspend motorists’ license for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. First-time offenders lose their driver’s license for three months, while repeat offenders lose theirs for longer. They could also be slapped with a hefty fine or even serve some jail time.
But the situation is different for drugs such as cannabis, according to Mr Heilpern. He said the law doesn’t establish a clear association between a positive test and adverse driving. This was made more complicated because testing procedures can detect even minute levels of cannabis in people’s systems.
“An enormous number, the vast majority of people who are brought before the courts on this charge, are not affected [by cannabis],” he said.
“It’s a historical or relatively benign impact on their driving ability, days, or even weeks after their use.”
Mr Heilpern said he hasn’t seen any evidence to prove that drug driving laws are actually working.
“When they introduced random breath testing, the road toll decreased massively. When they introduced seatbelt laws, there was a reduction in the road toll,” he said.
“I have seen nothing to show that there is any reduction in the road toll as a result of the thousands and thousands of people who are appearing before courts for historic use of cannabis.”
Impact of Roadside Drug Testing
As a veteran magistrate, Mr Heilpern shared his observations from his years presiding over drug driving cases. But his claim that the laws aren’t working isn’t necessarily true.
Earlier studies have shown that illicit drugs, such as cannabis, methamphetamine, and MDMA, can severely impact people’s ability to drive safely. A routine roadside drug test can detect these inhibitions.
Authorities use roadside drug testing to detect three drugs: cannabis, methamphetamine, and MDMA.
In controlled studies, drivers with low-doses of cannabis in their system often compensated for the drugs effects. But a meta-analysis of 422 separate studies on cannabis and driving showed an average increase of 1.25 times in fatality rates among drug users (Elvik R 2012).
Methamphetamine (Ice, Crystal Meth)
People who use amphetamine-class drugs show a 300% higher accident rate per mile travelled compared to non-users. The impact is much worse for those who use methamphetamine (Smart et al 1969).
In a similar study by Logan (1996), methamphetamine use at any concentration led to a higher chance of symptom development. These effects were inconsistent with safe driving.
MDMA (XTC, Ecstasy)
Meanwhile, experimental research into MDMA use showed that the drug may provide some benefit. Drivers who took the drug during the day experienced an improvement in some of their psychomotor driving skills.
The findings may look promising, but in reality MDMA users often take the drug at night. They are more likely to drive early in the morning the next day after a night of “raving” and sleep loss.
Another study (Bosker et al 2020) showed that MDMA use at night does not compensate for the associated sleeplessness. It concluded that ‘drivers who are under the influence of MDMA and are sleep deprived are unfit to drive’.
All four studies prove that illicit drug use can impact a person’s ability to drug safely. Research such as these often form the basis for policymakers to come up with appropriate legislation.
Making assumptions about the ineffectiveness of drug driving laws without facts is not only irresponsible but dangerous as well. The benefit of the laws come when they are applied in real world settings properly.
For accurate and reliable drug and alcohol testing, contact SafeWork Laboratories at 1300 795 227 today.
- Elvik, R. , Accident Analysis and Prevention (July 26, 2012)
- Smart et al J Safety Res 1969; 1(2): 67 – 73
- Logan BK. Methamphetamine and Driving Impairment. J. Forensic Sci June 1996; 41(3): 457 – 64
- Bosker WM Psychopharmacol (Berl) Aug 2012; 222(3): 367 – 76