Mike Yardley: Government has a Nervous Nigel approach to dealing with drug-driving

In the UK, drug testing can take place at a police station without the need for a doctor. New Zealand is some way behind ...
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In the UK, drug testing can take place at a police station without the need for a doctor. New Zealand is some way behind in dealing with drug-drivers, Mike Yardley says.

OPINION: The battle against drink-driving is steadily being conquered, thanks to a combination of attitudinal change and beefed-up enforcement.

The number of motorists in Canterbury being charged for driving under the influence of alcohol in the past decade has nearly halved, similar to the national average.

Ten years ago, 2543 drink-drive offences were clocked up in our region, yet last year the annual incidence had dropped to 1658.

Wouldn't it be great if our perverse driver addictions to red-light running and handheld cellphone use could also report such dramatic turns in the tide.

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Despite the steady plunge in the incidence of drink-driving, the national road toll continues to eclipse the year-on-year fatality count, while Canterbury's regional toll for the year to date is shamefully up 40 per cent on the year to June 2016.

Twenty-five road fatalities have already been reported in Canterbury this year, compared to 15 at the corresponding point last year.

As much as we welcome the substantial decline in drink-driving offending, what about drug-impaired driving? How many of those who kill and maim on our roads are actually off their scone? And why is New Zealand still badly dragging the chain on combating drug-driving?

After years of kicking the issue into the long grass, the Government appeared to be finally mustering the courage to implement roadside drug testing last August.

The then Associate Transport Minister, Craig Foss, announced he would be taking the issue to Cabinet in a few short months. In April, he was replaced by Tim Macindoe, who assumed the Associate Transport portfolio with responsibility for road safety. Macindoe hasn't said a word about drug-driving.

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Currently, police test for drugs only if they have "good cause to suspect" a driver is impaired, whereby they look out to lunch or have been driving erratically.

If police suspect a motorist is drug-impaired, they can ask the individual to complete behavioural tests such as walking heel to toe in a straight line or turning and standing on one leg. It is all very 1950s.

If they flunk that test, the driver must then complete a blood test. But for every 3 million drink-drive tests carried out on our roads, fewer than 400 drug-impairment tests are performed.

The Automobile Association (AA) has been beating the drum on saliva-testing for years, emboldened by the overwhelming support for a robust roadside drug detection regime.

Their latest membership survey indicated 87 per cent support. The AA's Mike Noon says police don't bother probing drug-impairment if the motorist has already failed a breath-alcohol test, so the overwhelming number of drugged drivers are never collared.

The Ministry of Health estimates that 130,000 Kiwis smoke cannabis alone, every week. A recent NZ Transport Agency research paper concluded that 47 per cent of people, who aren't "habitual" substance users, drug-drive. All "habitual" users admitted drug-driving. And most of these munters drove daily, with passengers.

The impact of drug-driving is undeniably monumental. An Environmental Science and Research study in 2010 found illicit drugs in the systems of 35 per cent of 1046 drivers who died in crashes. Their analysis showed that three quarters of the cannabis drivers who died caused the crash – and when alcohol and cannabis were mixed together nine out of 10 dead drivers were responsible for the crash that killed them.

But New Zealand remains light years behind the hard-nosed enforcement regimes now in force across all Australian states, much of Europe, the USA and Britain.

The state of Victoria has been at the leading edge of rapid-response roadside saliva drug-testing, consequently cutting the road toll. Detection now takes only two minutes, springing the likes of cannabis, meth and ecstasy. Some Aussie states are now catching more people for drug-driving than drink-driving.

Pleasingly, Labour police spokesman Stuart Nash, who represents the sensible side of the party, backs roadside saliva-testing against drug-drivers, "to put the fear of God into them".

Noon also wants a "cocktail offence" introduced, whereby drug and alcohol impairment triggers double penalties.

Let's get drug-addled deadbeats off the road.

The Government's Nervous Nigel approach to embracing the technology, introducing a robust drug-detection regime and tackling this silent killer has run out of excuses.

 - Stuff

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