Delivering the right message on drugs and driving

Governments past have dealt to deaths on New Zealand roads caused by drinking and driving with a comprehensive system of testing, evidence gathering and punishment. This has been backed by extensive, and expensive, advertising campaigns that resonate through all communities. Who doesn’t remember the brilliant “you know I can’t grab your ghost chips” drink-drive campaign of 2011? It became a pop culture phenomenon. Advertising is still centred around “mateship” and a collective responsibility to stop people drinking and driving. No New Zealander can get in a car after drinking too much and not know they are doing something wrong.

It is time for this Government to apply the same principles to the serious issue of drugged drivers. The number of deaths caused by drugged drivers – 71 last year and 88 the year before – means there must be better testing to get these people off our roads. Testing for drugs is not always undertaken and so these figures will be only the tip of the iceberg and they only reflect deaths, not injuries.

The number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers is higher than by drivers above the alcohol limit. Something has got to change.

So far, a soft approach is being taken, possibly because of Government plans to decriminalise marijuana.

If decriminalising marijuana is to be seriously discussed by New Zealanders next year, the Government is going to need to act on a regime that tests road users appropriately. Employers and workers in the safety sensitive industries, such as road transport and handling dangerous goods, need a system by which they can monitor and enforce workplace safety, or they will have WorkSafe to deal with. Without consistency and standards, Kiwis might have little confidence in voting for anything other than the status quo.

It is important to note that truck drivers are in the unique position of sharing their workplace – New Zealand roads – with the public. While the road transport industry follows workplace health and safety laws to ensure drivers are not drug impaired, with extensive testing regimes including pre-employment, random and post incident/accident drug testing, there is no guarantee that those they are sharing the road with won’t be impaired by drugs as there is no adequate testing regime for them. There needs to be a standard approach to testing all drivers for impairment as a result of drug use.

In an accident where a car versus a truck, the car invariably comes off second best. Media headlines focus on the truck, but much of the time, the blame for the accident falls with the car driver. While people in cars have the misconception that trucks are dangerous, truck drivers see every day dangerous car driving.

The Government needs to change its single-minded road safety focus, which is tunnel vision on speed and getting vehicles off the road, and take a holistic look at all the other contributing factors to accidents, one of which is drivers impaired by drugs.

In this area there seems to be more sympathy for the rights of drug-using drivers than on the safety of those who share the road with them, or the rights of those they kill or injure. Time for testing, cost of testing, and “pressure on the system” to come up with any kind of punishment are being put up as barriers to doing anything.

The Road Transport Forum fully supports a comprehensive roadside drug screening policy as a first line tool for early detection of impaired, or potentially impaired, drivers. This should without question, be part of an overall aspiration to mitigate risk on New Zealand roads of injury and death caused by drugged drivers.

Roadside drug testing should include the Compulsory Impairment Test (touch your nose, walk a straight line, stand on one leg), screening with some of the new oral technology and saliva wipes, and where necessary, an evidentiary blood test. This should be backed by the same advertising attention that has been paid to telling all New Zealanders that driving while drug impaired is dangerous and results in loss of lives.

Let’s get serious about road safety.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum