Driving on Drugs



Road safety charity Brake and Direct Line Car Insurance are calling for the government to push through proposals on tackling drug driving, as a survey reveals one in nine young drivers (11%) has driven on illegal drugs in the past year [1].

The survey by Brake and Direct Line found that 3% of young drivers (age 17-24) said they get behind the wheel after taking drugs once a month or more. Slightly more young drivers are admitting drug driving than four years ago, when one in 11 young drivers (9%) owned up to this potentially deadly behaviour [2].

Brake, together with the family of Lillian Groves, killed age 14 by a driver who had been smoking cannabis (see below), is urging the government to follow through on its promise to tackle drug driving urgently. They are calling for long-needed reform, including:

  • a new law making it an offence to drive while on illegal drugs, to rectify the current loophole. Currently it is only an offence to drive while impaired by drugs, meaning police must prove impairment to prosecute.
  • approval and roll-out of roadside drug screening devices, so police can test for drugs at the roadside and immediately following a crash.

Ellen Booth, Brake senior campaigns officer, said:“The risks of driving on drugs are huge, and the consequences devastating – yet a huge proportion of young drivers are taking this appalling gamble with their own and others’ lives. We need all drivers to pledge to never mix drugs and driving, and we need the government to follow through with its commitment to tackle this problem. For too long the law on drug driving has been totally inadequate. We need a ban on driving with illegal drugs in your system, and we need roadside drugalysers. The longer this takes, the more lives will be violently and tragically lost.”

Andy Goldby, Director of Motor Underwriting and Pricing for Direct Line Car Insurance, said: “Drug driving is as irresponsible as drink driving.  The effects of drugs can often leave people feeling overly confident or extremely relaxed, both of which are known to lead to dangerous driving behaviours.  We need the loopholes closed and action taken to ensure those who drive under the influence of drugs, are able to be prosecuted more easily.”

The consequences On 26 June 2010 Lillian Groves, 14, was playing in her front garden in New Addington, Croydon, with her brother Oliver, 10, when she went into the road to fetch a ball. Driver John Page, 36, was speeding, uninsured and had been smoking cannabis. He ploughed into Lillian at more than 40mph. She was rushed to hospital where doctors tried to stop the internal bleeding. Just after midnight her parents Natasha and Gary were told she had died from her head injury.

Page had been smoking cannabis that day. Following the collision, police searched the car he was driving and found a half-smoked cannabis joint. A blood test was not carried out until nine hours later. Page tested positive for cannabis, but the levels were not deemed high enough for him to face the more serious charge of causing death by driving under the influence of drugs, which carries a 14-year sentence. Page received a four month sentence for causing death by careless driving and causing death whilst driving uninsured and a two year driving ban. He was released after eight weeks.

Lillian’s aunty Michaela Groves said: “Lillian’s death has devastated our family. It’s left a gaping hole that simply cannot be filled. We will never see her grow up into the wonderful woman we know she would have been. I’m pleading with drivers young and old to commit to never take drugs and drive. It’s an atrocious risk that could easily end in death or serious injury.” and are determined to get 100,000 signatures.  Lillian’s family met with the David Cameron on 29th November 2011 to discuss a change in the law (see recommendations below). The Prime Minister was reported afterwards to have admitted that change had ‘taken too long’ and promised to speed up the process.

Recommendations to government

Brake and Lillian’s family are calling on the government to:

  • introduce a law making an offence to drive on illegal drugs. Our drink-drive laws mean drivers can be prosecuted for having a certain level of alcohol in their blood, regardless of whether it can be shown their driving was impaired, but this is currently not the case for illegal drugs. Introducing a similar offence for drug-driving would make it much easier to prosecute. Evidence shows a range of illegal drugs affect the skills, coordination and judgment required for driving, [3] so it is fair to assume that drivers with these drugs in their system are impaired. In the government’s framework for road safety, published in May 2011, they promised to examine whether to introduce of a law by 2015. Brake argues we need progress now.
  • introduce roadside drugalysers. While the current Field Impairment Tests used by police are an important aid to identifying driver impairment, they are subjective and therefore not always reliable in identifying drug driving [4.] Successive governments have been considering the official specifications for drugalysers for a decade: it’s time to get a move on.
  • Make roads policing a national policing priority, enabling greater resources to be invested in roads policing, and increase police powers to enable random testing, so more tests are carried out and there is a greater deterrent against drink and drug driving.

In March 2011 the government responded to an independent review of drink and drug driving by committing to approve drug screeners for use in police stations, and later at the roadside, and to examine the case for a new drug driving offence, relieving the need to prove impairment.

Brake welcomed this, but warns the policies proposed don’t go far enough or fast enough. For the past decade, successive governments have promised to tackle the scourge of drug driving but failed to make inroads. Drug driving laws and roadside testing equipment work in other countries including Germany, Australia and Finland so there is no reason to delay in the UK.

Read more on Brake’s campaign for zero tolerance on drug driving.
Facts Drug driving is a widespread menace. In the UK, around 18% of people killed in road crashes have traces of illegal drugs in their blood, with cannabis being the most common [5]. Young drivers are much more likely to take illegal drugs and drive than their older counterparts. Drivers under 25 years old are nearly four times as likely to drive on illegal drugs as older drivers (11% compared to 3%) [6].

Different drugs affect people in different ways and the effects can last for days, sometimes without someone realising. Researchers at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, found taking cannabis almost doubles the risk of being involved in a fatal car crash while mixing cannabis with alcohol increased crash risk 16-fold [7].

Advice for drivers Drugs and driving is a deadly combination. Illegal drugs can affect a driver’s behaviour and body in all sorts of dangerous and unpredictable ways, including: slower reaction times, poor concentration, sleepiness/fatigue, confused thinking, distorted perception and over-confidence. The effects of lack of sleep can also affect illegal drug users for days [8]. The message is simple, if you are driving, don’t take illegal drugs, and if you are taking illegal drugs, don’t drive until you have completely recovered.