Zero tolerance the wrong approach to drug-driving, experts say

TAC Campaign about drug driving from earlier this year. Source: TAC.

By THOMAS FOSTER

More work should be done on establishing impairment thresholds for drug-driving, much like .05 for alcohol, experts say.

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre research assistant Vivienne Moxham-Hall said  zero tolerance rules were unfair.

“Zero tolerance at any level means drivers are punished for the presence of drugs, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re impaired,” she said.

“Talking about thresholds is another step in the right direction. There needs to be more research.”

A major report on drug law reform tabled in the Victorian Parliament this year recommended an investigation into potentially implementing impairment thresholds in the current drug-driving laws.

In the same month, Victoria introduced new, stricter drink- and drug-driving laws with harsher penalties.

Ashleigh Newnham. Source: Facebook.

Springvale Monash Legal Service strategic and community development manager Ashleigh Newnham said a new drug impairment limit was just one of many changes that should be investigated.

“Working out a safe impairment limit would be part of the process of investigating changes to drug-driving laws, which would include consulting internationally,” she said.

“We need to build the evidence base.”

Ms Newnham said any reforms should focus on protecting road users and not simply criminalising drug users.

“Drug-driving laws are there for safe roads, not to police drug use. There is plenty of legislation criminalising drug use,” she said.

Impairment thresholds for drugs would see limits put on drug concentrations in a driver’s blood, similar to the 0.05 BAC limit for alcohol, rather than the zero-tolerance threshold currently in place.

Thresholds are currently used in Norway and the Netherlands for most drugs, and in parts of the United States for cannabis.

Transport Accident Commission lead director of road safety Samantha Cockfield said, in a statement, that it was currently impossible to have safe impairment thresholds for drug-driving.

“While Victorian and international crash data shows that illicit drugs do elevate crash risk, at this time there is not an impairment standard for any drug equivalent to the .05 BAC,” Ms Cockfield said.

Harsher laws for drug-driving were introduced in March.

The recommendations were published prior to new drink and drug driving laws which came into effect in Victoria on April 30, with harsher penalties and with drivers now required to complete a new Behaviour Change Program before getting their license back.

Ms Cockfield said law enforcement was proven to be effective in deterring unsafe driver behaviour.

“This new legislation will act as the strongest deterrent in history for Victorian motorists.”

The changes mean drivers who test positive for drugs now lose their license for six months, and are fined up to $475, or $1900 if required to go to court.

A second drug driving offence results in a fine up to $10,000 and license cancellation for 12 months, with the fine increasing to up to $19,000 for subsequent offences.

Ms Cockfield said that, of the 166 drivers or motorbike riders who died on Victorian roads in 2017, 56 were impaired by drugs or alcohol.

“Twenty-one were over the BAC limit, 27 were found to have drugs in their system and a further eight drivers/riders were both over the limit and impaired by drugs,” she said

Victorian Police declined to comment on the report’s drug-driving recommendations.