There was a time when drinking and driving wasn’t even seen as something you shouldn’t do, never mind it being illegal or socially unacceptable as it is today. Nowadays, everyone knows you shouldn’t drink and drive, but I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that British society and even the UK laws haven’t quite got to grips with drug driving in the same way it has with drink driving.
Driving under the influence of drugs can be every bit as dangerous and stupid as driving while under the influence of alcohol, but drug driving isn’t as straightforward to stop or even legislate against as driving under the influence of alcohol. Here we’re going to look at what drug driving really is and what the consequences can be.
History of driving “under the influence”
If you’re of a certain age you may be old enough to remember a time when drunk driving wasn’t actually against the law, or at least at a time when there was no maximum legal blood alcohol limit. That changed in 1967 with the introduction of the Road Safety Act of 1967 which set a maximum BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, or the equivalent 107 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine.
It certainly hasn’t been as easy or straightforward for the police and the courts to punish drug driving. The police used to try and punish drug driving using Section 4 of The Road Traffic Act 1988  (Driving or being in charge, when unfit through drink or drugs), but using this led to wasted time, effort and expense due to many prosecutions failing under this act.
Proper drug driving laws finally arrived on March 2nd 2015 with the introduction of section 56 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013  which added a new section into the Road Traffic Act 1988  (section 5A Drugs and Driving). To successfully secure a conviction of driving while unfit through drugs using the new act means it has to be proven that the ability of the driver was actually impaired by a drug.
No proof of impairment is necessary to secure a conviction for driving while exceeding the legal limit of a specified drug under the act. Simply proving that the level of specified drug in a defendant’s body at the time of the offence exceeded the legal limit is sufficient. The problems, however, are that only certain drugs are listed and while some drugs are obviously illegal, there are plenty of prescription drugs around and not all of them are listed. Alcohol is alcohol, but there’s an almost unlimited number of different drugs out there and more being introduced all the time.
The penalties for drug driving
If you are convicted in the UK of drug driving the potential penalties are pretty severe. Drivers who are caught and successfully convicted face a minimum driving ban of 12 months, a potentially unlimited fine, and up to six months in prison. And of course, they also find themselves with a criminal record and all the difficulties that will cause in their lives in the future.
On a more trivial note, getting insurance to drive again is going to be seriously expensive for them in the future too and may prove too expensive to be viable. Having a conviction for drug driving could also hurt your future employment chances, especially if a job involves driving, and you may also have trouble getting visas to travel abroad to countries like the United States of America for example.
And those penalties are just for being caught and convicted for drug driving with no other offences to consider. If something happens as a result of you being under the influence of drugs when driving there are all sorts of other convictions that carry their own penalties that can go on top, such as up to 14 years in prison for causing death by dangerous driving under the influence of drugs.
Not all drugs are equal
Drug driving is a much more complicated issue than drink driving in terms of what you actually have in your bloodstream. Alcohol is black and white; you either have too much in your system or you don’t and it doesn’t matter if it came from beer, wine, spirits or even paintbrush cleaning products!
With drugs, there are two main categories, which are the illegal and the prescribed. There’s effectively a zero-tolerance attitude to eight illegal drugs and driving, although the amount in your system to be prosecuted has to be at an amount that rules out accidental exposure.
The eight drugs that fall into this category include cannabis, cocaine, heroin, ketamine, LSD, MDMA, methamphetamine and speed, so taking any of these to the point where they have an effect on you and then driving is going to get you punished as above if you are caught.
Where things start to get a lot more complicated is when it comes to medicinal drugs. There are nine drugs listed that are not illegal for you to have in your possession or to take, but if they have not been prescribed to you by a physician and you have above the specified limit in your blood when driving then you are guilty of drug driving.
These medicinal drugs include amphetamines such as dexamphetamine or selegiline; clonazepam; diazepam; flunitrazepam; lorazepam; methadone; morphine or opiate and opioid-based drugs such as codeine, tramadol or fentanyl; oxazepam and finally temazepam.
However, if you’ve been prescribed one of these and you’re found to have them in your system above a certain limit when driving you’re not going to be dealt with in quite the same way as with illegal drugs or if you didn’t have a prescription.
How do the police catch drug drivers?
If the police have reason to believe that a driver may be under the influence of drugs they can stop them and carry out what is commonly known as a ‘field-impairment assessment,” which are non-scientific tests such as asking the suspect to walk in a straight line. The police do have testing kits they can use at the roadside for detecting cannabis and cocaine, but not for the many other drugs that can be a problem. The bottom line is that if the police are under the impression that you’re not fit to be driving you will be arrested, and you will then be taken to a police station where blood or urine tests can be carried out to discover if you are driving under the influence of drugs.
Of course, you don’t have to worry about any of this if you don’t drive when you’ve taken drugs or you’ve been drinking alcohol, obviously!