Figures released following a recent freedom of information request show that convictions for drug driving related offences have risen year on year since 2011.
The figures include reference to the following offences:
- Causing death by dangerous driving when unfit through drugs
- Driving or attempting to drive with a drug level above the specified limit
- Being in charge of a vehicle whist having a drug level above the specified limit
- Driving or attempting to drive when unfit through drugs
- Being in charge of a vehicle when unfit through drugs
Tough new law catches hundreds of drug drivers
Clearly, a significant factor in the increase of convictions for drug driving related offences is the introduction of a new drug driving offence. In March 2015, new legislation came into effect which made it an offence to drive with a proportion of a controlled drug above the specified limit. According to the figures, this offence is responsible for 604 additional drug driving convictions between May 2015 and October 2015 when the figures were collated.
Under the new offence, it is not necessary for the Prosecution to prove any link between the drug taken and the standard of driving. This has led to a number of drivers being pulled over for relatively minor offences such as failing to give way at a junction, expired MOT’s and defective brake lights being investigated and subsequently charged and convicted for the more serious drug driving offence. Such drivers may have otherwise escaped detection in the absence of any evidence of impairment.
The police have been significantly aided in their efforts to catch drug drivers by the rollout of a new roadside drug testing device which coincided with the introduction of the tough new law. Rather than having to rely on old style impairment detection techniques such as assessing the size of a drivers pupils or making them walk in a straight line, police officers can now require a person to provide a sample of saliva at the roadside using a ‘drug-wipe’ device which shows the presence of cannabis of cocaine within minutes.
The new law covers 16 controlled drugs, half of which are illegal and half of which are available on prescription. Whilst the limits for illegal drugs have been set extremely low (low enough for one puff on a joint to put someone over the limit), the limits for prescription medication have been set relatively high to allow for normal prescribing instructions.
Old offence continues to secure convictions
Whilst the new offence was designed to make prosecuting drug drivers easier by removing the need to prove any impairment, the older “driving whilst unfit through drugs” offence continues to secure an even higher number of convictions than its newer counterpart. Unconstrained by a list of controlled drugs, a person can be convicted of the older offence for having any drug (including any medicine) in their system if it affects their manner of driving.
It is expected however that as the Police and Crown Prosecution Service become more accustomed to investigating and prosecuting under the newer specified limit offence, that conviction statistics for the old impaired driving offence will slowly start to decline and be overtaken by increasing conviction rates under the newer offence.
Dwindling police numbers undermine the effectiveness of government campaigns
The overall increase in drug driving related convictions comes despite numerous government campaigns aimed at highlighting the dangers of drug driving, the most recent of which began in March 2016 and features a paranoid driver being pulled over by the police.
Whilst the figures do not cover the time-period of the most recent campaign, questions must be raised as to the effectiveness of such campaigns when dwindling police numbers leave more and more drivers prepared to ‘chance it’ in the absence of visible police numbers to enforce the legislation.
With the extremely low levels that have been set for recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, it’s easy to wonder what the true figure for drug driving would be if there were sufficient numbers of police fully to enforce the legislation.
Article written by Specialist Motoring Law Solicitor Alison Ashworth; Managing Director of Ashworth Motoring Law Ltd.
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