What is drug driving and why can it be as bad as drink driving?

Posted by Julie Donovan on

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Only since the mid 1980's did we start to recognise the dangers of drink driving, probably because more of us like a drink than indulge in taking drugs and we are all very well educated as to the harm of being under the effects of alcohol through the media and education in schools and colleges.

Being under the influence of drugs is just as dangerous and will affect the brain altering perception, co-ordination, balance, reaction time and attention span, which are all faculties we need to use to ensure we drive safely.  These faculties will be affected differently depending of the type of drug, the amount consumed and the history of use.

In an article published in December 2010 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Maryland, USA  the results of a research on the effects of drugs especially marijuana showed that the chemical compound found in the cannabis plant (THC) affects areas of the brain that control these faculties. Although they decided that more research was required to understand the impact of using marijuana on the ability of drivers to react to complex and unpredictable situations, what they do know is:-

  • A meta-analysis of approximately 60 experimental studies — including laboratory, driving simulator, and on-road experiments — found that behavioural and cognitive skills related to driving performance were impaired in a dose-dependent fashion with increasing THC blood levels.
  • Evidence from both real and simulated driving studies indicates that marijuana can negatively affect a driver's attentiveness, perception of time and speed, and ability to draw on information obtained from past experiences.
  • A study of over 3,000 fatally injured drivers in Australia showed that when marijuana was present in the blood of the driver, he or she was much more likely to be at fault for the accident. Additionally, the higher the THC concentration, the more likely the driver was to be culpable.
  • Research shows that impairment increases significantly when marijuana use is combined with alcohol. Studies have found that many drivers who test positive for alcohol also test positive for THC, making it clear that drinking and drugged driving are often linked behaviours.

There are also many medications which are taken regularly  and which will act on the brain in the same way and will also impact on driving ability.  Although these medications come with health warnings as to driving and using machinery which include prescribed medication, there is always a risk that when medication is taken without supervision and abused this can have the same harmful affects as recreational drugs.

Being under the influence of any drug whether recreational or prescribed will act on the brain and will impair motor skills, reaction time and judgment which not only puts the driver at risk but also the passengers, other drivers on the road and pedestrians.

For alcohol, detection of its blood concentration (BAC) is relatively simple, and concentrations greater than 0.08 percent have been shown to impair driving performance; but there is no agreed-upon limit for which impairment has been reliably demonstrated for drug use and when determining current drug levels it can be difficult, since some drugs linger in the body for a period of days or weeks after initial ingestion.

In a number of States in America and the District of Columbia they have implemented a Drug Evaluation and Classification Program which is designed to train police officers as Drug Recognition Experts and officers learn to detect characteristics in a person's behaviour and appearance which may be associated with drug use.  Similarly in the UK the Police are trained to recognise drug use and the types of drugs used.

During my research I have found the Government website very informative about drug use and the law and also Safer Motoring website which concentrates on safe driving and drug use.

Unlike drink driving which can be determined by a simple road side test, there is not the same testing available for drug driving and it has been recognised for a long time that drug driving is as dangerous as drink driving and the laws surrounding drug driving are no where near as effective as the laws surrounding drink driving.  Ministers have now agreed to pass a new law which will help the Police to bring successful convictions and enable them to use the road side test which has already been in use throughout Europe for some time.  The change in the law has been backed by David Cameron who has welcomed the change.

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About the Author

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Julie is a Senior Legal Executive in our Personal Injury team with over 18 years of experience in compensation claims.

Julie Donovan
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023 8085 7322

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