Drug driving is not as common as drunk driving, but it can be equally dangerous. Chris Bond talks to a specialist police officer helping to make our roads safer.
We’ve all seen the hard-hitting TV drink-driving campaigns, but watching a video of someone under the influence of drugs trying to do a simple balance test is no less shocking. The man is unable to put one foot in front of the other, yet he obviously felt he was in a fit state to get behind the wheel of a car.
Drug driving may not be as widespread as drink driving but it can have equally catastrophic consequences. The exact number of people in the UK driving under influence of drugs is unknown, but according to figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) around 18 per cent of people killed in road crashes have traces of illegal drugs in their blood, with cannabis the most common.
The most recent road casualty figures released by the Government show a three per cent rise in deaths on the road in 2011, reversing what up to now has been a long trend in improved safety. They also reveal that drug users are almost twice as likely as drinkers to drive while under the influence, and with the Christmas party season already upon us police forces across the country have stepped up their crackdown on drink and drug driving.
Taking drugs impairs driving skills in numerous ways, varying from slower reaction times and erratic and aggressive behaviour, to an inability to concentrate properly, hallucinations and panic attacks. It can also have tragic consequences. In 2006, two drivers, one of who was high on a cocktail of Ecstasy and cocaine, were jailed for six years after they killed a grandmother in a 100mph car race on a stretch of road in West Yorkshire.
In the UK our drink driving rules are pretty clear-cut, but when it comes to drugs they become a bit more complicated. As it stands a person is committing an offence if their driving is impaired through drugs use, but, unlike the drink driving rules, it has to be proved that impairment was caused by drugs and as a result the number of prosecutions each year is relatively low.
But the Government is planning new rules so that it’s against the law to drive with drugs in your body and is also looking to bring in roadside drug screeners to help test and catch drug drivers.
This change should help the small band of specialist officers tasked with taking drug drivers off Britain’s roads. Traffic Constable Yvonne Taylor, based in Tadcaster with North Yorkshire Police, is one of just seven Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) in the UK – and the only female. She has been a police officer in Yorkshire for the past 17 years and has spent most of that time working as a traffic cop.
As well as being trained to do the standard Field Impairment test – in the UK this involves a walk and turn test, a balance test, an eye examination, the one leg stand test and the finger to nose test – she also has drug detection skills. She learned these in the United States last year after winning a scholarship through the International Police Association, spending three weeks training in California.
“There were about 17 of us in the class but I was the only person who wasn’t based in California,” she says.
“I was taught about the different types of drugs and what signs to look out for, so what drugs do to the eyes, whether they dilate or construct the pupils and how the body behaves under the influence of drugs.”
In the US these techniques are commonplace but in the UK they’re relatively new and while we have breathalysers to test if a driver is over the drink driving limit, we don’t yet have an equivalent test for someone under the influence of drugs.
Although drink driving remains a far bigger problem on Britain’s roads, TC Taylor suspects drug driving may be on the rise. “I don’t know the exact figures but my opinion is it seems to be increasing and this could be because we’re getting better at looking for it and detecting it.”
She covers an area stretching from the A19 near Thirsk in the north down to the M62 and, as with all traffic officers, spends a lot of time out on patrol. So how do you spot a driver who is potentially under the influence of drugs? “Initially it’s the manner of the driving, they need to be doing something to stand out, either weaving, or driving really slowly or quickly. But also it can be something as simple as having a light out. We can stop a vehicle for that because it’s a moving traffic offence and when you’re talking to the driver you quickly pick up if something’s not right.”
One of the first telltale signs that someone is under the influence of drugs is by checking their eyes, but experts are also able to carry out a more rigorous test that allows them to identify the use of drugs within seven different categories, including stimulants like cocaine and speed and hallucinogens such as LSD. “By going through different tests you narrow down the options to work out which category of drug they might be under the influence of. For instance, opiates are the only drug that constricts the pupils,” she says.
Drug driving is often associated with younger drivers but this isn’t always the case. “It tends to be younger people, especially things like inhalants and cannabis, but with prescription drugs they can be any age and it’s not just illegal drugs that are the problem it’s legal ones as well. You can still be unfit to drive even though you’re taking prescribed medication, but most people don’t realise this.”
And just as it is with drink drivers, incidents involving those under the influence of drugs can happen anywhere. “You might have someone driving around in a town, or you might come across someone trying to scoot home on a back road from a rural pub or a party,” she says.
“We’ve had instances of people in North Yorkshire under the influence of ketamine which is usually used as a horse tranquilliser. Rural communities can get hold of these kind of things and misuse them. It’s horrible to watch, you see people standing there with snot coming out of their nose and then all of a sudden they’ll go crazy, it’s like flicking a switch.”
Certainly drugs and vehicles can be a lethal cocktail. “When people are under the influence of drugs they’re not in full control of their senses and what’s going on around them. Depressants slow down the nervous system so you’re not reacting quickly enough, while with amphetamines like speed and other stimulants you do things quicker but you don’t do things better.”
Either way it’s dangerous. “Some drugs make you too cautious and you might sit at a junction for ages thinking a car is approaching and you don’t have time to get out when in fact you do, which can cause problems behind you. People can also fall asleep at the wheel so there are all sorts of different types of behaviour.”
I joined TC Taylor on patrol for a couple of hours during a midweek evening shift. It’s bitterly cold and the roads are quieter than usual and although we don’t stop anyone on this occasion you know there are people driving around somewhere under the influence of drugs. “People probably aren’t as aware about the dangers of drug driving as they are with alcohol issues and that’s one of the problems we face.”
According to figures from the Government’s Crime Survey for England and Wales, the number of drivers who admit taking illegal drugs at some point in the past 12 months has risen from 77 per cent to 80 per cent.
The road safety charity Brake, which has launched its own “not a drop, not a drag” campaign, says drug driving is a “menace” on our roads. Campaigns officer Franki Hackett says whatever way you look at it drug driving is incredibly dangerous. “Some drugs like speed or cocaine increase risk taking like speeding and aggressive driving, while others like marijuana slow reaction times and can lead to a loss of concentration.
“And drugs can take a long time to wear off, so if you take illegal drugs, there is no room for driving in your life. There is never a need to risk lives by driving after taking drugs, and the potential consequences are simply catastrophic.”
What drugs do to drivers
Different drugs affect people in different ways and the effects can last for days, sometimes without the user realising.
Cannabis – slows reactions, affects concentration and co-ordination and can have a sedative-like effect which causes fatigue.
Cocaine – a stimulant that causes over-confidence and erratic behaviour. After a night out using cocaine people can feel sleepy and lack concentration.
Ecstasy – can cause a surge of adrenaline making a driver more likely to take risks.
LSD – can speed up or slow down time and movement, making the speed of other vehicles difficult to judge, as well as making people feel panicky and confused.