The lowdown on driving high
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New Zealand has higher rates of drug use than many other countries, yet little is being done to detect and catch people who are driving drugged and putting lives at risk.
Studies in New Zealand have found about one in three drivers in fatal and serious injury crashes had some type of drug in their system — mainly cannabis.
A bill to bolster police’s ability to tackle drug driving was last month lodged as a Members Bill by National MP for Wairarapa Alastair Scott.
“Too many fatal crashes involving drugs have highlighted the need to crack down on those who get behind the wheel while under the influence of illegal substances,” Scott says.
This bill would allow police to stop drivers “anytime, anywhere”, as they currently can for alcohol testing.
The drivers may then be tested for cannabis, MDMA and methamphetamine.
Presently, if a police officer has good cause to suspect a driver is under the influence of drugs, the officer can request the driver undergo a Compulsory Impairment Test (CIT). Grounds for having good cause to suspect include erratic driving or, if the driver has been stopped for another reason, appearing to be under the influence of drugs. For example, a driver stopped at a booze bus who is behaving in an intoxicated manner but passes a breath alcohol test.
The CIT involves:
●an eye assessment — pupil size, reaction to light, lack of convergence and nystagmus (irregular eye movement is a marker for impairment)
●a walk and turn assessment (like a supermodel)
●a one leg stand assessment.
If the driver fails to pass the impairment test, the police may forbid the driver to operate a vehicle for 12 hours and may require a blood sample.
Drugged driving can apply to medications, too
The law treats controlled drugs and prescription medicines even-handedly because both can impair a person’s ability to drive safe.
The law cares about the safety risk to other road users, rather than the drug of choice.
The law does provide a defence to a person who can prove they were using a qualifying drug within their prescription and under the instruction of the manufacturer or the doctor who prescribed it.
How do we compare?
In Australia, police conduct random roadside drug testing which uses saliva samples to detect illicit drugs.
The test involves using an absorbent collector placed in the mouth or on the tongue which takes about three to five minutes. It detects drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy).
These tests do not detect the presence of legally prescribed drugs or common over-the-counter medications.
Random roadside saliva testing was last reviewed by the New Zealand Government in May 2012.
The review concluded results from saliva screening were not reliable enough for criminal prosecution, and the test took too long.
If there are law changes, it’s important that there is forethought and planning to prepare the public and police for increased responsibility on the roads.
The AA has actively highlighted this issue over many years. We are a partner on the Substance Impaired Driving Group.
We appreciate that there are still challenges and tests are not available for all substances, but the technology and experience from other jurisdictions is advanced enough to start roadside drug testing here — and its introduction would have a valuable deterrent effect.