Saturday, 9 January 2010

Spinning Drug-Driving - Victorian Police Style

I have no problem with arresting those who drink-drive or take drugs and drive. I don’t care what the drug is ... driving while impaired is dangerous. And please, none of the crap saying, “driving while stoned actually makes you safer because you’re more cautious”. It’s just not true. Although cannabis has nowhere near the same level of impairment as alcohol, it still does hinder your driving.

I do have a problem though with the current proposal put forward by the Victorian police. The police say they want to bring drug-driving laws into line with drink-driving and have proposed new penalties similar to the drink-driving laws. Drink-driving penalties are determined by the alcohol content in your blood (bac) and reflects how badly it impairs your driving ability. Under a certain bac, there should be no effect on your driving skills and therefore no penalty. All very logical and scientific. The proposed drug-driving laws though do not a have a minimum level which is in effect, a zero content requirement. Some zealots say that drugs are illegal anyway so anything but a zero reading is worthy of a penalty. This just opens up a loophole where the police can use random drug-driving testing as an excuse to gain an arrest to investigate another crime.

As there is no evidence on the correlation between the level of presence of a drug and the level of impairment, it stands to reason that it is also flawed to determine a penalty regime based on alcohol which is currently scaled to reflect the seriousness of an offence based on impairment. As there is no scientific data to relate fluid/saliva samples to impairment levels, a mirroring of penalty is inappropriate.
-Civil Liberties Australia submission for Review of ACT Alcohol and Drug Driving Laws

The major flaw with this proposal is that unlike alcohol, some drugs can linger in the body for weeks or even months. Cannabis can last for up to 6 weeks or more in your system but any impairment on one’s driving ability has long gone. Imagine being in a room full of dope smokers one weekend and being busted for drug-driving the following Thursday because of passive smoking. What about if you took an ecstasy pill on Saturday night and got arrested on Tuesday for drug-driving? If it’s your second offence, you might be fined $7,000 and have your car impounded.This is simply illogical and not appropriate in a supposedly advanced society.

While this data should be available from the ACT hospitals, it needs to be also presented in the context of drug impairment and elapsed time from the drug consumption to the accident, noting that drug residue will show up in testing well after any impairment may have been a factor of an accident.
-Civil Liberties Australia submission for Review of ACT Alcohol and Drug Driving Laws

The proposal irks me for several reasons apart from the obvious. Where’s the opposition to it? Who is taking the Victorian Police to task over such a blatant act of silliness? Isn’t the Shadow Police Minister suppose to keep the government in check when it comes to these issues? What about using blood samples taken from drug-driving offences to pursue an arrest for drug use?

I’m disappointed in the Victorian Police especially Deputy Commissioner Ken Lay. I thought we had finally ended the Nixon era with a rational Police Commissioner who openly supports Harm Minimisation and drug law reform. So why did Police Commissioner, Simon Overland let this proposal slip through? Are we back to the days of telling only half-truths?

Ken Lay made some remarkable comments which sounded very much like a blurb from a politician. When compared to the comments in the article made by an actual politician, the State Roads Minister Tim Pallas, it would be hard to tell who said what.

That's a strike rate of one in 67... much higher than the drink-driving rate
-Victorian Police Deputy Commissioner Ken Lay

In fact, there are more drivers killed with illicit drugs in their bodies than drivers with illegal levels of alcohol
-Victorian State Roads Minister Tim Pallas

Of course there are going to be more drug-drivers detected when some drugs linger in your body for months but alcohol is gone within 24 hours or usually less. What they also don’t mention is that while most road fatalities involving alcohol has alcohol as the cause of the accident, drugs are not responsible for most of the fatalities where drugs are detected.

Similarly, the presence of a drug(s) in an accident driver does not by itself infer that the driver caused or contributed to the accident.
-Civil Liberties Australia submission for Review of ACT Alcohol and Drug Driving Laws

This is a textbook example of spin at it’s best. By leaving out a few simple facts, much of the public will buy into it and the Victorian Police Deputy Commissioner and State Roads Minister will achieve their goal. I must say, it’s pretty sad that our police and elected officials stoop to this level so readily considering it’s 2010. Hang your heads in shame Ken Lay and Tim Pallas, hang them low.

Police Set To Crack Down On Drug Drivers With Licence Suspensions And $350 Fines From Mid-2010
Herald Sun
Stephen McMahon with AAP
December 2009

STONERS and party drug users who get caught behind the wheel face tougher new drug-driving penalties as part of a fresh crackdown to lower the state's road toll.

The State Government plans to introduce laws into Parliament next year that will include an automatic three-month licence suspension and a $350 fine for anybody caught driving while high.

The new laws will bring the penalties for drug-driving into line with drink-driving and are expected to take effect in mid-2010.

The drug test can detect speed, ecstasy and marijuana but can't pick up cocaine or heroin.

But Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Ken Lay said roadside sobriety tests could be used to catch heroin and cocaine users who were driving under the influence.

"In the last financial year, almost 23,000 roadside drug tests were conducted with 341 offenders caught with an illicit substance in their system,'' Mr Lay said.

"That's a strike rate of one in 67... much higher than the drink-driving rate.''

Mr Lay admitted the drug testing had such a high strike rate because the police specifically tested major party hot spots.

"We know there are drug-affected motorists on the roads and a mandatory loss of licence will be an extra deterrent to those dangerous drivers,'' he said.

State Roads Minister Tim Pallas said traces of one or more illicit drugs were found in 30 per cent of drivers who died on Victoria's roads each year.

"In fact, there are more drivers killed with illicit drugs in their bodies than drivers with illegal levels of alcohol,'' he said.

"If the driver is caught drug-driving a second time they face a penalty imposed by the court of up to $7000 as well as a licence cancellation of at least six months.''

Two-time offenders may have their car impounded under laws announced in May.

"Motorists will see more enforcement through roadside drug testing programs, with an additional 20,000 tests - bringing the total to approximately 35,000 across Victoria - to be conducted in 2010,'' Mr Pallas said.

The road toll in Victoria stands at 283 -- down 13 on the same time last year.

The Brumby Government is aiming to reduce the annual road toll by 30 per cent within seven years.

Related Articles:
Creeping Police State
Human Rights And Random Roadside Drug Testing
Response by Civil Liberties Australia to Discussion Paper: Review of the Road Transport(Alcohol and Drugs) Act
FFDLR Submission on The Discussion Paper: Review of the Road Transport (Alcohol and Drugs) Act


Anonymous said...

Hi Terry,

I like most of what you are saying here, but just want to point out one error.

Saliva test kits (as used for roadside drug testing) only detect substances that are currently in your bloodstream, (because saliva is just difused plasma). This means that even cannabis should only be detected for 3-8 hours after smoking.

However you are quite correct in your comments re: substances detected in road fatalities. The fact that traces of a substance are found in autopsy does not mean the drug use was recent enough to be affecting the driver when the accident occured. Nor does it indicate culpability.

Dr Jane.

Anonymous said...

Dr Jane,

While that may be true, the tests kits are not infalable and false positives occour in around 10% of cases. Given that Cannabis is the most common illicit drug used in australia, this means that there are going to be a percentage of people that who are not intoxicated but will still be detected and charged. in NSW, driving with any amount of illicit substance in your blood is against the law.