Drug-driving: high time we took note

Blog post posted on 09/02/17 |

Seizures, fits, haemorrhaging, hallucinations, paranoia, drowsiness and even death. Some of the shocking side effects that have occurred from the use of legal highs otherwise known as new psychoactive substances.

From the offset, attitudes to legal highs have been lax. Despite widespread concern and years of pressure from drug and alcohol professionals, a blanket ban on these substances was only introduced eight months ago across the UK.

Until this point a considerable number of people wrongly believed that legal highs were the ‘safer’ option. Many still do, despite the change in legislation, as it has taken so long for many, previously legal substances, to be placed in the same category as other dangerous and illicit drugs. One thing’s for certain with 204 deaths attributed to their use in 2015, their comparative ‘safety’ couldn’t be any more false.

Why do we as road users need to be wary of psychoactive substances? It was only until relatively recently that drug-driving emerged as a prominent issue within the road safety arena. We have been regularly bombarded with anti-drink drive messaging (which is good) but strong campaign messages and useful information about drugs are more recent phenomena.

Perhaps we would like to believe that such warnings need not apply to our own children, friends or colleagues but with half a million 17-24 year olds admitting to experimental drug use we need to open our eyes to a different reality.

We are often warned about the dangers of drug-driving but not really warned of the differences from drink driving and arguably more unpredictable risks associated with it.

When individuals purchase psychoactive substances, there is usually little or no information at all provided about what the ‘high’ contains. In fact many cases present in A&E are difficult to treat for this very reason. If you do not know what you have taken, how can you know how it will affect you?

What’s more ‘legal highs’ are constantly changing. New chemicals are substituted to avoid the law, changing the makeup of different legal highs, so you are always one step away from knowing exactly what you are dealing with. This uncertainty is a different type of risk to alcohol, because all of the individual chemicals and reactions are impossible to know.

We know about the morning after effect for alcohol. The same applies for drugs. If you have taken something the night before, don’t assume you are safe to drive the following day. This applies to prescription drugs too. Recent legislation that came into effect in March 2015 means it’s now illegal in England and Wales to drive over certain levels for 17 named drugs, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. You can see the full list here.

This intervention has brought about promising change as more people are getting caught, thus reinforcing to others, the severity and very real consequences of the offence (500 people were convicted in 2016, which is a 467% rise from 2014).  What is missing however are the legal highs and IAM RoadSmart would like to see them given higher priority as drug driving policy matures.

This development may be positive but there is still more work to be done. IAM RoadSmart are calling for the same drug driving laws to be implemented in Scotland, where road side testing and criminal limits are not yet in place. There are many ways in which Scotland has been pioneering in terms of drug policy, the introduction of the National Naloxone Programme, being just one example, but drug driving law continues to be one area in which it falls short. 

Since the initial publication of this blog (February 2017) Ministers have announced their intention to bring in drug-drive limits in Scotland and we await further developments with interest…

Thenuka Mahendrarasa, IAM RoadSmart social media executive