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Mike Noon

Drugged driving a hidden killer

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No one would be happy to know that the driver heading towards them on the road was drunk.

That’s why we use a lot of Police time and taxpayer’s money to try and keep drunk drivers off our roads.

But what about if the driver heading towards you was stoned instead?

The reality is that right now there is very little stopping someone from using drugs and then getting behind the wheel and the Automobile Association thinks that needs to change.

Australia has been doing roadside drug testing for more than a decade in some states and the UK introduced it in 2015. It is past time that New Zealand followed suit and started using technology to fight what the AA sees as “a hidden killer on our roads”.

For a bit of context, picture this: Eden Park in Auckland, Westpac Stadium in Wellington, AMI Stadium in Christchurch and Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin all full of people at the same time. It would be a pretty massive crowd.

Well that is how many New Zealanders say they use cannabis at least once a week. That figure comes from the 2015 Ministry of Health cannabis use survey which estimates more than 130,000 people in the country are regular users of the drug.

That number isn’t surprising. Cannabis is common in Aotearoa and most people will have encountered it or people using it at some stage in their life.

But here is another number from that Ministry of Health survey. 1 in 3 cannabis users also say they have driven stoned. There are also smaller numbers of users of other drugs who you might end up sharing the road with.

It’s crazy to think that a driver could be out of it on one of those drugs and pass through a Police checkpoint undetected but that is the current situation. As long as they aren’t over the alcohol limit and can keep it together for a minute they are likely to pass the sniffer test and be waved on to carry on driving.

This isn’t a criticism of Police. They have an impairment test that they can require a driver suspected of being under the influence of drugs to do (looking at their eye responses, a walk and turn and one leg stand) but it needs trained staff to do it and can take a lot of time and resource that is often hard to spare. What this means is while there is normally about 3 million roadside tests on drivers for alcohol each year the number of drug tests is in the low hundreds.

This is a real concern to the AA as every time a drugged driver goes through a checkpoint or is stopped by Police but not detected it strengthens the idea that it’s ok to do it.

And we know from surveys that have been done that there are a number of cannabis users in particular who think that driving stoned is fine. They may view driving drunk as dangerous but have a very different view of cannabis, believing it can make them drive calmer, more carefully and slower.

There might be some truth in that but it isn’t the whole story. Driving while stoned can make people slower to react, weave around more on the road, less alert and less aware of what’s happening around them on the road.

Something that a lot of people are unaware of is the extremely dangerous effect of combining cannabis with alcohol or other drugs. If you have a small amount of alcohol (one beer or wine for example) plus some cannabis it amplifies the impairing effect to be much, much greater.

The obvious question is does this lead to crashes? International research has found cannabis doubles a drivers crash risk and other drugs tend to increase the risks even more.

A New Zealand study by Environmental Science & Research in 2010 analysed blood samples from 1046 drivers who had died in crashes over the five previous years and found about 1 in 3 had some type of impairing drug in their system. Cannabis was by far the most common drug found.

Another ESR study in 2011 found 29% of the sober drivers hospitalised from a crash had potentially impairing drugs in their system.

Crashes often involve multiple factors so it would be wrong to say that drugs were the reason for all of these crashes but two things are pretty clear: drugs impair people’s driving ability and a disproportionate number of the people who crash have drugs in their system.

We need to do more to stop this.

Since 2011 the AA has been calling for the introduction of roadside drug testing using saliva-based devices and six years on we still are. We aren’t pretending that there won’t be challenges to do so. Arguments made against roadside testing are that the devices are too slow, costly and won’t catch 100% of drugged drivers. Yet they have been using them effectively in Australia for many years. They use them in a more targeted fashion than alcohol tests and in some cases are catching higher rates of drugged drivers than drunk drivers.

We also need to send a much stronger message to drugged drivers that what they are doing is not ok and knowing that the Police can test and detect drugs would be a serious deterrent. When we have surveyed AA Members 90% supported introducing roadside drug testing.

At the start of this piece I asked if people would be happy to have a drugged driver heading towards them. If the answer to that is no then we can’t continue to sit on our hands.