Taking the high road

One in five Queensland drivers pulled over for roadside drug testing are returning positive results for illicit substances.

The message “if you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot,” has long been etched into motorists’ minds, but it appears the message has not sunk in about drug driving.

During 2015-2016, 10,804 drivers tested positive to driving under the influence of drugs including cannabis, methylamphetamines including Crystal-meth, Ice, Speed and Ecstasy, and a range of other illicit substances.

The epidemic of drug driving is made even more apparent when compared with the 2014-2015 roadside figures, which found 3178 Queenslanders returning positive tests for drug driving, marking a 240% increase in 2015-2016.*

Car driver being drug and breath tested roadside by police

The rise could, however, be attributed to an increased police presence and testing. In 2015-2016, 49,445 roadside drug tests were conducted, up from 20,389 in 2014-2015. This financial year, out of the 41,942 tests conducted, 7993 drivers returned positive results as of March 31, 2017.

Acting Superintendent Road Police Command Neal White said these figures equated to one in five drivers testing positive on the roadside.

“We have no tolerance for drug driving,” Supt White said.

“There are a high number of people affected and police and other agencies continue to present the message that drug driving is dangerous.

It is a risky behaviour, and the effects of drugs while driving vary depending on the substance.

“The impact can be seen by a reduced ability to judge; distance and speed; distortion of time; place and space; blurred vision; dizziness; fatigue; nausea; mood swings and other side effects.”

Supt White said drugs in a driver’s system severely hindered “judgment, vision, and coordination”, all of which increased the chances of having a crash.

“Mixing drugs and driving can be certainly just as dangerous if not more dangerous than drink driving,” he said.

“Drugs affect each person differently and some people may not even be aware of the effect drugs are having on them until it’s too late.”

Supt White said drug driving rated highly among the “Fatal Five” causes of traffic crashes, which also include speeding, distracted driving, failure to wear a seatbelt and driving while fatigued.

“Drugs and driving under the influence of alcohol have significantly impacted fatal road statistics equally as much as speeding,” he said.

In terms of what roadside drug testing officers are targeting, Supt White said it was only the relevant illicit substances of methylamphetamine (also known as Ice and Speed), Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient in Cannabis – and MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy that returns positive results.

“Police are only testing for those three relevant drugs,” he said.

“The drugs that mainly show up are Ecstasy, MDMA and Cannabis, but we are seeing an increased detection with cannabis through this financial year followed by MDMA.

“People need to be aware that these drugs will remain in your system for some time and the residual effects will impact your ability to drive a motor vehicle.”

Driver of car handing over driver's licence to police officer

It is understood one of the reasons why police are seeing increased levels of cannabis in roadside testing is due to the use of medicinal cannabis.

“It’s critical people who are prescribed this medication talk with their doctor about the effects,” Supt White said.

“In Queensland, it remains an offence to drive with THC present and that is regardless of the original source of the drug.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s sourced legally through prescription medication or illegally through other means – the bottom line is THC effects your ability to drive safely.”

Supt White said motorists won’t return positive results for standard prescription medications but they should be aware of the effect their medication may have on their body.

People need to be aware and consult with their doctors or pharmacists when taking prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, he said

“One person might be fine to drive but another on the same medication may not be.

“Ultimately, road safety is everybody’s responsibility and you don’t want to put yourself or other innocent parties on the road in any danger unnecessarily.”

RACQ Principal Road Safety Advisor Joel Tucker said the introduction of roadside drug testing in Queensland has been a very important development in road safety for the state, but more needs to be done.

“While a lot of progress has been made regarding enforcement against drug driving in Queensland, the Government should consider expanding the testing program and options for education and rehabilitation methods,” he said.

“It is important to address the core behaviour of drug use for motorists caught driving under the influence.”

Police anlaysing drug tests roadside

Mr Tucker said the options could include increased public education campaigns, early intervention programs for first time offenders and rehabilitation programs for repeat offenders.

“Drug driving isn’t just a road safety issue – it is a symptom of drug use in the community.

“If people are getting caught driving with drugs in their systems, they’re likely to be having all sorts of interactions in the same condition including at work, in the home or in social settings.

“The effects don’t suddenly start once you get into a car and they don’t disappear once you step out.”

*Queensland Police Service Annual Statistical Review 2015-2016.

Images: Queensland Police Service