UK drug driving laws tightened

From 2nd March, 2015, the laws on driving under the influence of illegal and certain prescribed drugs become more stringent.

The UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has released guidelines to drivers based on the new wording of sections 4 and 5A of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which state that the unpredictable effects of illegal drugs can make the consequences of driving after taking them even more severe than the results of alcohol consumption.

What the new law covers

Very small amounts of illegal drugs will result in blood tests showing excessive levels for driving and the DVSA advises that no amount of such substances should be taken before driving. Such drugs as covered by the legislation include cannabis, LSD, cocaine and heroin.

For prescription medicines, the limits have been set at a concentration higher than would generally be found for patients taking normal therapeutic doses but the key to the new laws is impairment and the DVSA advises patients always to check with their doctors or pharmacists if the prescribed medicines are likely to affect the ability to drive. Such medicines as covered by the legislation include diazepam, Temazepam, methadone and morphine.

Whilst there is a defence for drivers who have been prescribed higher doses than normal, this is only valid if the driver fails a blood test but had no impairment. Impaired drivers will always fall foul of the law.

A long-awaited objective test

One of the difficulties with bringing successful prosecutions against drug drivers in the past was the subjectivity of the assessment of impairment. Such subjectivity has now been removed and the police have a higher chance of successful enforcement by using roadside test equipment.

The so-called “drugalyser” will provide an objective result at the roadside on which the police can base their decision to arrest someone for further testing. Blood samples can then be taken and the results compared to the prescribed limits for the list of drugs which the law covers.

A step forward for road safety

The country’s Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has reacted to the change in law by describing it as a big step forward for road safety since some estimates state that drug driving is responsible for as many as 200 deaths each year. Recreational drugs are a large problem with young drivers with an IAM survey showing that 10% have admitted to driving after using cannabis and up to 370 thousand young people having driven under the influence of Class A drugs.

The IAM has always taken a strong stance on the issue of drug impaired driving with its assertion that no-one should drive if they are under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol.

Describing the new law as being a step in the right direction, the IAM’s CEO, Sarah Sillars stated that drugs have a massive effect on the senses, placing the driver, passengers and other road users in severe danger. “It’s a self-centred action and those committing it are now being punished with the full force of the law. Now at last, there is a real deterrent,” she said.

Resources for professional drivers

UK road safety charity, Brake, also welcomes the news of the new law and has made its own contribution to raising awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of both illegal and certain prescription drugs. To help employers of professional drivers, Brake has produced a guidance report and driver advice sheet designed to raise awareness and to provide information on testing policies.

A crucial aspect of the awareness campaign is to reinforce the message that certain over-the-counter or prescription medicines can have an adverse effect on the ability to drive safely. The new law covers a list of certain prescription based medicines and doctor’s advice should be followed when making decisions whether to drive or not.

Brake performed a survey in June 2014 and found that around 17% of the drivers surveyed either don’t check to see if their medicines impact driving ability or ignore any warnings that are there. Brake’s advice is to always read and heed the label on the medicine packaging and to seek advice from a pharmacist or doctor if it is unclear.

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