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Mike Noon

Drug testing on our roads is overdue

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Road deaths involving a driver with drugs in their system are increasing and it is well past time that New Zealand gave Police the ability to check for drugs through a saliva test.

As illegal drugs and legal medications become ever-more part of people’s lives, crashes involving drugged drivers are increasing.

In recent years, authorities have made small steps towards educating the public about this issue but there has only been a tiny amount of enforcement done by police because of limitations around the old-fashioned impairment test they must use, for which they first need ‘good cause to suspect’ a driver is drug-impaired.

The AA has said for many years this approach is token and not addressing the problem. We’re pleased to see from recently released discussion documents that officials in the Ministry of Transport and Police have joined the AA in supporting random roadside saliva testing. This month we also had a private members bill drawn from the ballot in parliament to introduce saliva-based drug testing, which will put the issue back in the political spotlight at some point in the future.

Research done several years ago by ESR on drivers who died in crashes showed that a third of drivers had a potentially impairing drug in their system, suggesting that drugged-driving could be a significant issue. At the AA we consider it a hidden killer.

Other research and public surveys on drug use and driving are continuing to inform us. 

Most recently, the Ministry of Transport has said that one in 13 drivers killed have potentially impairing medications in their system, and if recreational drugs are factored in the number could be as high as one in nine.

Deaths involving drugged drivers have been trending up since the 1990s. Meanwhile, although alcohol still features in more crashes overall than drugs, deaths involving drunk drivers have significantly trended down.

Education and enforcement aimed at reducing drink driving has worked. The AA believes that the same focus is now overdue for drugged driving.

We recognise that policing drugged driving is more complex – evidence of the impairing effect of alcohol is well established, whereas there are many different drugs and they can have different effects on people. Tests for alcohol are also quick and cheap compared with drug testing.

But we have a moral obligation to do more when we know drugs are an increasing cause of deaths on our roads, and it’s not just the drugged drivers getting killed.

An ever growing number of countries are introducing saliva-based roadside drug tests. New Zealand is a laggard. Some Australian states have been using them for a decade and the UK, Ireland, France, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have either recently introduced them or are in the process of doing so.

The case for introducing saliva tests here was recently made much stronger by Ministry of Transport analysis estimating that for every $1 spent on random saliva tests, after 10 years it would equate to $8.50 in savings due to fewer fatal crashes occurring.

The Ministry estimates the social cost of drug-driving could currently be $250 million per year and it is suggesting that just $9 million a year could be spent on effectively introducing roadside saliva tests.

The economics are proven – we now just need the political will. And that shouldn’t be hard with a staggering 94% of AA Members saying they support roadside saliva testing for drugs. They do not want to be sharing the road with a drugged driver.  

Concerns about the accuracy of tests are addressed by complementing them with existing processes for determining impairment. Saliva tests simply more easily detect drivers who have recently used drugs, thereby picking up more drug-impaired drivers and acting as a deterrent and educational tool.  

Although the saliva tests would initially only detect common illicit drugs (cannabis, ecstasy and P), the AA believes it is better to at least test for some impairing substances rather than none.

Random roadside drug testing would send a strong message that you’re endangering yourself and others if you drive impaired, and this doesn’t just apply to alcohol.

Meanwhile, we are very pleased to see more rigorous processes are being introduced to get pharmacists, GPs, and employers of drivers talking to people who are on medications about potential impairment and whether they are safe to drive. Often impairment is a temporary effect when people first start taking medications. Encouraging open conversations about having a back-up to driving if you feel impaired is a good thing.

It has been proven time and again that a combination of education and enforcement can change attitudes and behaviour.

With our road toll climbing, the AA is challenging the Labour-led Government to now step up enforcement of drugged driving. It will make a meaningful difference to road safety and it is already strongly supported by Kiwis.