Speech

The fight against drug driving

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Robert Goodwill speaks about the law changes, THINK! campaigns, road ratings and innovation used in fighting drug driving.

Introduction

Thank you for that welcome.

It’s a pleasure to join you for this year’s roads policing conference. Anyone who uses our nation’s roads benefits from the vital work you do.

Protecting us from dangerous drivers.

Pursuing those who have committed serious crimes.

Often, your presence alone is enough to keep our roads safe and reassure the public.

But you are also there when things go wrong. At crash scenes, for example, saving lives and gathering evidence.

You make a fantastic contribution in helping to make UK roads among the very safest in the world. In 2013, the fewest number of people died on our roads since records began in 1926.

This was a real achievement, for which I want to express the government’s gratitude. But we can only consolidate that success and improve on it if we continue to be vigilant, and take action to counter any evolving threats to road safety.

Increase in road safety deaths in 2014

That’s particularly relevant right now, because the casualty figures for the first six months of 2014 are in.

And it is a matter of serious concern that they show an increase in the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads. We don’t yet know if this is a blip, or part of a longer-term trend, if it’s influenced by the increase in traffic on the roads as the economy recovers, or if it’s because 2014 was the warmest year since records began, and more pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists were out and about.

But we are analysing the data very closely. And – together – we will respond to get casualties falling again.

Drug driving law reform

So today (15 January 2015) I want to set out some of the changes the government is making so you get the support you need.

Over the past 50 years, road deaths due to drink driving have been slashed by more than 80%.

But one of the big challenges for the next few years will be to clamp down on drug-driving in the same way. Every police officer knows the damage done by the use of illegal drugs. Drug-crime threatens the wellbeing of our society and clogs up our justice system.

And drugs take a terrible toll on our roads, too. Perhaps as many as 200 people a year are killed by drivers impaired by drugs.

For too long, you have not been properly supported by the law in tackling this scourge. The law against drug driving was first introduced in the Road Traffic Act 1930. The same piece of legislation that gave us the first driving tests. Yet since then, the law has barely changed.

For drink driving, you have powers to charge a suspect as soon as excessive alcohol is detected in the bloodstream. But to charge a drug driving suspect you have to prove the driver is impaired, and that the impairment is caused by drugs. That’s a matter of professional medical judgement, followed by a blood test. The process is open to challenge, and it is slow and expensive.

The result is that a drug driver is almost 50 times less likely to be convicted than a drink driver.

So we’ve brought in new legislation. From the 2nd of March this year, it will be an offence in England and Wales to be over set limits for the most common drugs while driving, as it is with drink driving.

It will no longer be a matter of judgement, but a testable fact.

For cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, and 4 other commonly abused drugs, if they’re detected in the bloodstream above a set level it will be enough to charge people with drug driving.

We’ve set the levels as low as we reasonably can. Low enough that one smoke of cannabis is likely to put an offender over the limit.

But just high enough so suspects can’t claim – for example – that drugs were inhaled accidentally.

And if drivers start turning to other drugs, we can put them in the regulations and set limits for those, too.

If a driver is suspected of being impaired by a drug not covered by the new law, we’re keeping the old law in place as a back-up; so they can still be charged under Section 4 of the 1988 Act.

This is the biggest shake-up of drug driving laws for 85 years. It will give you better enforcement tools for tackling drug driving. It will create a stronger deterrent. And it will save lives by taking drug drivers off our roads.

Deregulation bill measures

We’re making other changes, too. In 1967, when breathalysers were introduced, it made sense for drivers to be offered a blood or urine test if they failed the breathalyser test by a margin. Back then, the equipment wasn’t so reliable. But modern breathalysers are highly accurate, and drunk drivers use the loophole to play for time.

So we’ve put before Parliament a Bill that will remove a driver’s right to demand a blood or urine test if they fail a breathalyser test, and the breathalyser result will stand as proof in court.

Another obstacle is having to call for a doctor when a blood test is required. That can be a slow process, especially at this time of year when medical resources are under strain.

So the same Bill proposes that a healthcare professional – such as a nurse or paramedic – can do the test instead. We hope these changes will become law as soon as possible after the new drug driving offence.

THINK!

Ideally, though, we want to prevent people taking drugs and driving in the first place. We’ve been running campaigns against drink driving for 50 years, and we know they’ve saved many lives.

So we’ll be launching a THINK! campaign to coincide with the new drug driving offence. The evidence shows that the majority of offenders are young men, so that’s who we’ll target with the new campaign.

I can assure you we won’t pull any punches; I want them to know there’s a good chance they’ll get caught if they persist in drug driving.

Roads star rating proposal

Now, just because our roads are among the safest in the world, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from elsewhere.

Some countries have introduced star rating schemes showing how safe roads are. And while in the UK road safety data is already available, using a transparent star system can bring further benefits…

Such as giving motorists the opportunity to avoid more dangerous roads, and prompting highway authorities to take action.

I’ve asked the Highways Agency to look into this proposal, so drivers can make an informed choice about the roads they use, and so we can target road safety measures in the right place.

Tribute to innovation in road policing this year

I’ve talked about what we’re doing, but now I’d like to pay tribute to some of the fantastic work you’ve been doing.

A huge amount of work went into road policing over the Christmas period, but I’d particularly like to congratulate Sussex and Surrey Police forces for your joint campaign against drug and drink driving.

It kicked off at 9.30am on 1st December with the arrest of a driver doing the school run while drunk, and by 31st December, dozens more drivers had been charged. As I speak, at least 19 have been convicted.

I know this because Sussex Police is using the web to publish the names of drivers they’ve caught. It’s a tough measure, but justified.

At last year’s conference, the Secretary of State announced £120,000 funding for police forces to buy station-based cannabis screening devices. A positive result means there’s no need to wait for a medical practitioner to advise on whether the driver’s condition might be due to a drug.

12 police forces have begun using the devices already, and they’re getting used to the technology before the new offence is introduced.

I’d also like to mention the increasingly innovative ways that road police forces have been using social media over the last year. Kent Roads Policing Unit can now boast 18,000 followers on Twitter. Surrey Roads Police has 22,000, while Hampshire has a 25,000-strong following.

This isn’t just good PR. Every single follower receives regular information about road policing in their area. Crash updates, warnings about dangerous road conditions, appeals for information, and safety advice.

It’s instant communication between the police and the public, on a scale that couldn’t have been foreseen even a couple of years ago.

Conclusion

So let me finish today by congratulating you on another year of hard work, and another year of real progress in the fight for road safety.

It’s a fight we have been winning for 50 years. But the emerging 2014 figures remind us that none of us in the road safety business can take success for granted.

The solution lies in raising our game, year after year. Better technology, better enforcement, better legislation, better campaigning.

But it’s hugely reassuring for me as Road Safety minister to know we have one of the finest road police forces in the world out there every day saving lives.

So, thank you.