Richard Smith, transport consultant, answers some frequently asked questions about the new law on drug driving which is relevant to everyone driving on UK roads.

Q: I understand that there is a new rule concerned with drug-driving. What is the situation?

Driving while under the influence of drugs is every bit as serious as driving under the influence of alcohol. As many as 200 people are estimated to be killed each year on our roads as a result.

It is not a crime to have drugs in the body, but under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 it is an offence to drive while unfit through the use of drugs. However, a successful prosecution for that offence requires police to prove both that the offender was impaired so as to be unfit to drive and that the impairment was caused by drugs.

The new offence, introduced by the Crime and Courts Act 2013, concerns driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with concentrations of sixteen specific controlled drugs in excess of specified levels in the blood. It becomes effective on 2 March 2015.

The drugs covered by the new offence and the specified limits are listed in secondary legislation (SI 2104 No 2868) and are those that affect the capacity to drive safely.

The new offence is similar to the existing drink-driving legislation. In other words, impairment and lack of fitness to drive do not in themselves have to be proved. The only consideration is that the drug is present in the blood at higher than the specified concentration. The penalties are similar to drink-driving too, involving up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5000 coupled with disqualification from driving for at least 12 months.

Q: What about drugs prescribed by a doctor?

The offence covers the possession and use of eight drugs which are already illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and very low limits are set for these. In addition to these drugs a further group of common prescription drugs is also included ie:

  • clonazepam, diazepam, flunitrazepam, lorazepam, oxazepam, temazepam, methadone and morphine

The legal limits set for these eight drugs are higher than the normal prescribed dose and those taking them under medical supervision can usually continue to drive as long as their driving is not impaired.

Some prescribed drugs may also contain low levels of the illegal substances listed in the SI but there is a specified defence under the new law that covers controlled drugs taken under medical advice. As always, drivers taking prescribed drugs must check with the doctor or pharmacist that driving is unlikely to be impaired when the drugs are taken at the recommended dose.

Drivers who do need to take prescription drugs should always carry a copy of the prescription with them while driving — and this may provide a defence under the new law. However, it is important to remember that there is still the offence of driving while impaired through drugs, which covers all drugs, including prescription drugs taken at the prescribed dose. The fact that the drugs were prescribed will not provide a defence if driving is shown to be impaired.

Q: How is the new offence detected?

Under section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 it is already an offence to drive while unfit through the use of drugs or alcohol. However, a successful prosecution for that offence requires police to prove both that the offender was impaired so as to be unfit to drive and that the impairment was caused by drugs.

In order to provide this proof, a Field Impairment Test (FIT) is carried out at the roadside and this involves carrying out a series of five separate tests including:

  • walking along a straight line and turning

  • standing on one leg

  • bringing the forefinger from arm’s length to the tip of the nose.

If the driver does not pass the FIT test, he or she can be arrested. Then, at a police station, a Forensic Medical Examiner will take samples of blood, saliva or urine, which will be checked for the presence of drugs or alcohol. Failure to pass the FIT together with the presence of drugs or alcohol (in any concentration) may be taken as proof that the offence has been committed.

Just to clarify, under the new Act it is not necessary to show that the offender was either impaired by the use of drugs or unfit to drive but simply that the level of the drug in the blood exceeded the specified threshold.

Since 2012 a device called the Draeger Drug Test 5000 has been type approved for the simple detection of cannabis but this machine is installed in police stations and would normally require the FIT to be administered first in order to provide grounds for arrest and subsequent testing.

A new roadside test device, the Suretec DrugWipe 3S, called “Drugwipe”, was approved for use on 15 January 2015 and this will allow police officers to quickly identify those drivers potentially under the influence of cannabis or cocaine.

Drugwipe analyses a small quantity of saliva and within 8 minutes produces a result. The appearance of lines on the device confirms a positive reading and the suspect will then be taken to a police station for a blood test, the results of which will be used in any prosecution. This places the detection of drug-driving (at least as far as cannabis and cocaine are concerned) on the same basis as drink-driving.

Last reviewed 25 February 2015