Time to introduce roadside tests for drug drivers in New Zealand

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Time to introduce roadside tests for drug drivers in New Zealand

OPINION: As the Government faces the invidious challenge of trying to combat the rising bloodbath on our roads, it’s timely that the drug driving detection debate has reawakened.

Random roadside breath-testing helps keep drink drivers in check, while drug drivers are virtually handed a free pass.

About 30,000 Kiwis are convicted of drink driving, annually. Yet drug driving offences barely nudge 400 a year – even though 130,000 Kiwis regularly smoke dope, according to the 2015 Ministry of Health Cannabis Survey

Ironically, it’s the National Party that is now beating the drum for roadside drug detection testing to being swiftly implemented, with Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott lodging his private members bill in the House this week.

He’s confirmed to me that the bill has the full blessing and formal support of his party. The irony is National’s sudden conversion to the cause, given they continually kicked this can down the road for years in government.

Alastair Scott quite rightly ridicules the current state of play, whereby if a police officer has reason to suspect a driver is drug-affected, they can perform an “archaic” impairment field test, entailing gazing into their eyes, the walk and turn, and one-leg stands. It’s all very 1950s – and hopelessly hit and miss. No wonder so few field tests are actually carried out. Most cops aren’t even trained how to perform them.

You may recall the last government reviewed the merits of roadside drug-detection testing in 2012. The Associate Transport Minister at the time, Simon Bridges, determined that the screening technology wasn’t sufficiently reliable or fast enough. And National continued to spout that shaky, gutless position for the next five years, across a passing parade of ineffectual minsters responsible for road safety, including Craig Foss and Tim Macindoe.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world marched on, with many Australian states rolling out mobile drug-screening to the roadside as early as 2011.

British police were armed with rapid detection drug-screening devices several years ago – in fact the overwhelming majority of First World nations have followed suit, to tackle the scourge of drug driving.

Unlike New Zealand’s abysmal death toll, Victoria’s fatality count dropped in 2017 to 255. State police figures indicate a third of motorists who died had drugs in their system – and it’s a similar story in New South Wales.

Both states have just toughened up the penalties for drug-driving and expanded the range of drugs their screening devices will detect. New South Wales will double the number of roadside saliva-tests this year, from 100,000 to 200,000.

Many stoners and recreational drug users continue to bleat that the saliva-screening devices pick up moderate traces of drug use from the previous 24 hours, and aren’t calibrated to measure the level of impairment.

Inevitably, that debate will also play out here, but many countries including Australia and Britain have passed laws unleashing a two-tier system of charges: Driving while impaired by drugs, and driving with drugs present in your blood, urine or saliva.

The mere presence of drug above a specified level to eliminate accidental exposure, earns you 12 months loss of licence in Britain. Impairment results in even stiffer penalties. There’s a lot to like about the UK’s comprehensive enforcement model. Their roadside screening regime takes aim at eight illicit drugs and a further nine prescription drugs.

The respective limits are calibrated to override any chance of passive exposure to illicit drugs, and they’re set above normal therapeutic doses for the prescription drugs.

Just look at the spate of meth-related road fatalities in Nelson alone this summer.

We desperately need targeted drug-detection testing, to deter these losers from driving off their scone. The Automobile Association has been crying out for it, for years. The Police Association is passionately on board. The new police minister, Stuart Nash, was particularly vocal in exhorting National to make it a reality, while in opposition.

Well, it’s walk the talk time. Nash tells me that he’s very happy to peruse Scott’s members bill and will consider taking it to Cabinet.

For an innovative, pragmatic little country, it’s beyond pathetic that we can launch rockets into space, but have struggled to muster the courage to deploy technology to bust drug driving.

Let’s do this? You can, minister.

 – Stuff