December 9, 2009

Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, Marijuana, Ecstasy and Alcohol (x4), C-c-c-c-c-cocaine! Thusly enumerate Queens of the Stone Age on their classic (and highly irresponsible) paean to mind-altering substances, Feel Good Hit of the Summer.

Now Lord Adonis, secretary of state for transport and male beauty, has delayed publication of the government’s new road safety strategy while he seeks advice on drink and drugs.

The source of said advice? It’s legendary legal swordsman Sir Peter North QC, whose prolific output was such a seminal influence on 1991’s hugely acclaimed Road Traffic Act (RTA).

North will now be adopting an expression of blissfully productive concentration as he comes up with a veritable flood of fresh thinking on drink, drugs and driving – and how the law should handle their interface.

According to a recent survey by road safety charity Brake, 50% of UK drivers and bikers admit to drinking and driving (consecutively, in that order, presumably – rather than simultaneously) and 10% to doing it at least once a month and/or to driving after three or more units.

There is no clear correlation between the number of units consumed and the level of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream, on which the 80mg per 100ml legal limit is based. A person’s size and weight make a big difference (good news for the corpulently sanguine, less so for the bloodless skinny).

Fifty per cent of Brits wrongly believe it would take at least two units have any effect on their driving, and 8% that at least four units would be required.

There is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol when driving, only a legally permissible amount. We must all behave like grown-ups and reach our own accommodation with the knowledge that any moving motor vehicle is a potentially lethal instrument.

Confusion also reigns over what drinks have what effect. Contrary to popular opinion, a single pint of strong lager or cider (between four and five units) can contain more alcohol than two glasses of wine or two measures of spirits (around four units).

Having fallen dramatically over the past two decades, deaths due to drink-driving appear to be on the rise again. There were 560 last year (more than ten a week), up 6% on the 2001 low-water mark.

With the 2008’s overall road death toll down 14% at 2,538 (around 50 per week), it seems drink-driving is currently implicated in around one in five driving fatalities.

How many road deaths result, in whole or in part, from the use of recreational drugs, nobody really knows. But, according to an AA/Populus survey, half of UK drivers believe drug driving is at least as much of a problem as drink driving. It’s a tough one to prove when post mortem testing for controlled substances is by no means routine and roadside testing remains rudimentary verging on non-existent.

In the absence of drug-alysers, UK police rely on something like the US drunk tests so memorably parodied by Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains. Suspected drug users have to count out 30 seconds, walk nine paces back and forth, balance on one leg, touch the end of their noses (with their eyes closed), and pass a pupil dilation inspection (with their eyes open).

Roadside drug testing equipment is already in common use in Europe and the US. In South Africa their drug-alysers can detect cannabis, cocaine, opiates and amphetamine from a single saliva swab, all in around three minutes – showing in the process that 19% of drink drivers have also taken drugs and that 12% of those who pass the booze test fail the drugs test.

Delegates at an AA seminar on drug driving heard how different drugs affect drivers in different ways. Cannabis impairs concentration, steering accuracy, and reaction times. Cocaine induces over-confidence leading to aggressive driving, errors of judgement and excessive risk-taking. Ecstasy distorts visual perception and impedes concentration and risk-awareness. Opiates like Heroin slow drivers’ reaction times and make them lethargic. And LSD can basically freak a citizen out completely, causing them to react to things that aren’t even there.

So what options will Sir Peter be proposing? Limits on the quantity of illegal substances permissible in drivers’ blood streams? Graded penalties for being caught more or less drunk at the wheel? Harsher punishment for repeat offenders?

One of the most likely outcomes is a proposed reduction in the legally acceptable alcohol limit bringing us into line with the 50mg per 100ml in force in several other EU countries.

In reality, most of those involved in fatal drink driving incidents are not just slightly over the limit, but way over. Major cuts in the current levels of drink-and-drug-related driving deaths will require a direct and effective appeal to the consciences of individual drivers rather than fine judgements of calibration.

Given that such individuals’ moral faculties may already be considerably impaired when they get behind the wheel intoxicated, this is no easy task.



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