POLICE will step up drug testing after it was revealed drivers are five times more likely to test positive for drugs than alcohol.
While the number of drivers tested for booze – and being caught drink driving is still significantly higher – the ratio of drug drivers to drink drivers is disturbing police.
Last year, one out of every 208 people breath-tested had alcohol in their system while one in every 46 people was under the influence of drugs.
In some areas close to 10 per cent of drivers pulled over during random roadside operations are testing positive to marijuana and methamphetamine – some for both.
The findings have forced police to step up drug testing alongside random breath testing. “We know there a lot of drivers using drugs but I don’t think we know the real extent of the problem,” highway patrol boss Assistant Commissioner John Hartley said.
“There is a perception, particularly among young people, that you can’t drink and drive but you can take illegal substances and get away with it – well they are wrong.”
Of the more than 33,619 motorists tested by police last year, more than 720 of them were found to have drugs in their system.
This is in stark contrast to one in 208 motorists caught driving over the alcohol limit.
“We began drug testing motorists in 2007 after a study showed high marijuana use in fatal accidents,” Mr Hartley said. “It was a bit of a wake-up call and we have been increasing testing every year.”
He said police would this year increase RDT (random drug testing) operations and mobile testing. The testing equipment can detect some drugs used 48 hours prior.
Senior Sergeant Hal Potts, who heads the highway patrol drug-testing operation, said country areas were a major problem. In Young last month, police carried out 153 drug tests with nine drivers testing positive to marijuana or speed.
By comparison only four people out of more than 200 people breath tested had alcohol in their system.
“It is not uncommon to have 10 to 15 per cent of drivers tested in a (country) area to return positive results which, percentage wise, is fair above that for alcohol,” he said.
Police are concerned at a trend where some drug users appeared to be appointing a “designated driver”, indicating the prevalence of usage.
“We may not be able to stop people taking drugs but we want to change their behaviour and make sure they are not getting into vehicles with drugs in their system,” Mr Hartley said.
“Like with drink driving we have to educate people and have them thinking to the point if I get in the car under the influence of drugs or drink I am going to get caught.”
Roadside drug tests cost $30 compared to a few cents for alcohol tests, and take up to seven minutes, compared to a 30-second breath test.
“But the technology is improving and we hope to be able to tests for drugs the way we do for alcohol,” Mr Hartley said.
On Friday night, Tara Sheehy was driving down the great western highway to Penrith when she was pulled over at Glenbrook and asked to submit to a Random Drug test.
The 26-year old social worker from Penrith said she was glad the police were drug testing motorists.
“I know people my age who think its all right to take drugs and drive,” she said.
“Many don’t think they will get caught or tested. I think it’s awesome and sends a great message to people not to flout the law or else you will get caught.”
The test takes five minutes and involves licking a test pad which looks for the presence of cannabis as well as Methylamphetamine and ecstasy.
If the tests proves positive the driver is taken to a mobile drug testing truck where a saliva sample is taken for further tests. If this indicates the presence of drugs the motorist is prohibited from driving for 24 hours. The sample is then sent to a NSW Laboratory and summons issued if the results are positive.
A first offence carries a maximum $1,100 fine and three to six months loss of licence. NSW police said since RDT was introduced 80 people have been caught a second time and 6 people more than twice.
A second offence is a $2200 fine, 6 months loss of licence and potential for jail time carries the potential of jail time. On Friday night one female tested positive out of 163 drug tests.
There were no drink drivers out of 939 breath tests.
This article first appeared on ‘Daily Telegraph’ on 6 January 2014.