After my spectacular unavailability to be able to appear on TV today about the new drug driving campaign, I thought I would add my general comments here.
There is no doubt that drug driving is a problem in New Zealand, as it is in other countries.
Alcohol is treated differently under the law because it is possible to relate the amount of alcohol in a driver’s blood with a degree of driving impairment. Alcohol is currently the only drug for which this is the case, which is why we have defined limits in the law: 400 in breath and 80 in blood for adults (zero tolerance for youth).
As for the ad campaign, it seems to demonstrate very nicely the difference between the perceived ’she’ll be right’ attitude of drugged (and drink) drivers and the reality of people who are not affected by drugs (or drink). We don’t like the thought of drugged drivers on our roads any more than drink drivers because we are put in danger by them: the survival instinct kicks in and we don’t want to be put at risk by someone else’s actions.
If this campaign works then it will be great — but how will it stop people driving when they have taken drugs? Once someone has taken drugs, just like with alcohol, judgement becomes impaired and the driver cannot make a sensible decision about whether or not they should be driving.
It will take non-drug impaired people to stop those who are drug impaired from getting behind the wheel.
It will also need people to think about when they take drugs — if they decide to take them, do they have to drive afterwards or can they wait until the drugs wear off?
Many people get caught drink driving the morning after they have had a heavy, late night on the booze — they don’t realise how long it takes alcohol to be removed from their system. It’s the same with some drugs.
Educating people about drugs (including alcohol) in the body is a controversial area. How do we educate people about how long it takes for drugs to be removed from the system? Is it socially responsible to do that?
Effects of drugs
Different drugs affect different people in different ways and sometimes the same person different ways on different days — you just have to ask someone who has used cannabis with differing effects – the difference between a great high and a bad reaction (what is called a ‘whitey’ in England). Mix the drugs being taken and things become even more unpredictable. Cannabis usually depresses the central nervous system — I’ve had several cases where drivers have been stopped by the police because they were driving too slowly and too carefully: no high-speed car chases in those cases, for sure. Not such a danger you might think but what happens if they have to stop suddenly for a child running into the road?
Other drugs are a stimulant, such as methamphetamine — look at the case involving the courier driver who was accidentally shot by police on the motorway in Auckland when they were chasing a P addict. P addicts can be awake for several days and their driving would be expected to be erratic.
If someone is new to a prescription drug or has had their brand changed or their dose increased, the body takes time to adjust.
Revised NZ drug driving law
The revised drug driving law is relatively new in New Zealand — the amendments, including the use of compulsory impairment tests, came into effect in December 2010. This company does many drink driving cases each year but we have yet to be instructed in more than a handful of drug driving cases under the new legislation. Discussions with lawyers have shown that there is not yet any case law about this revised law.
The key to new legislation will be testing it in the courts and then, if for some reason cases are failing to proceed to successful prosecution (i.e. driver found guilty) then the law may have to be reviewed and tweaked, as it was in England and Wales.
Overall, there is no doubt that people in New Zealand are driving after having taken drugs. The key is to either stop them getting in their cars in the first place or correctly identifying those drivers whilst they are actually on the road.
Just a note on the various statistics that are being quoted, e.g.:
31 per cent of drivers had used cannabis with or without alcohol or other drugs.
14 per cent had used drugs other than alcohol or cannabis.
These sorts of statistics need careful examination — I would assume that reference to ’cannabis’ means the active ingredient of cannabis (THC) was detected. Otherwise, detecting the inactive metabolites of cannabis doesn’t mean anything because they can be present in the body for days without causing someone to be ‘stoned’.
Also, the concentration of the drugs found is important — trace amounts may not cause impairment so would be a red herring when trying to indicate how drugs are problem when it comes to driving.
It took a long time to change the drink drive culture – and it’s still in progress. This series of adverts is a step to changing the drug driving culture too.