Tenders will issue early next year for a new roadside device to test motorists for illegal drugs and medicines that can impair driving, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has said. The devices will test a driver's saliva and if the sample taken is positive for the presence of either the driver will be brought to a Garda Station where a blood sample will be taken for analysis.
Drug driving has been relatively under-detected to date, in part because it is more challenging to test for than alcohol. This is because multiple substances are being tested for and because the quantities consumed, and available for detection, are smaller. Mr Varadkar said a number of roadside devices were now available which the Medical Bureau of Road Safety — which tests samples from drivers for intoxicants — believes will withstand legal scrutiny.
The Minister said he plans to legislate for roadside drug testing next year in a new law which would also strengthen the legal provisions relating to driving in an impaired state after taking drugs. Drug driving is currently an offence but the legislation does not specify an allowable level nor does it distinguish between legal and illegal substances. It simply states there must be a proven impairment due to a drug.
Prosecution for drug driving is based on proof of an intoxicant being found and evidence from a garda that the motorist’s ability to drive was impaired. Cannabis and benzodiazepines are the drugs most commonly detected in motorists, but others include cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, opiates and methadone. The benzodiazepine class includes prescription medicines such as diazepam and alprazolam.
According to a Medical Bureau of Road Safety study: 'Report on Roadside Drug Testing and Equipment (2012)', these central nervous system depressants can cause drowsiness, dizziness and confusion. "Simulator and driving studies have shown that such drugs produce significant driving impairment," the report said.
In its 2012 report the bureau examined 2,000 samples from drivers sent to it for analysis and found just under 15 per cent tested positive for drugs.
Professor Denis Cusack, who heads up the bureau, said the roadside devices available could test for some, but not all, of the seven most commonly detected drugs. For this reason Prof Cusack says roadside impairment tests, also due to be introduced early next year, "will always be needed". Roadside impairment tests require motorists to perform simple co-ordination tasks at checkpoints to determine if they are intoxicated. Gardai have already undergone a roadside impairment training programme prior to the introduction of this technique early next year.
Prof Cusack said the decision to introduce roadside drug testing was taken after representatives of a working group of officials from the Department of Transport, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety and gardai, examined a number of devices.
Prof Cusack said he was waiting for a decision from Minister for Justice Alan Shatter on how many of these roadside devices would be required. "Until I receive that response I cannot comment on the likely cost of this programme."
The introduction of roadside drug tests is expected to lead to an increase in blood samples being taken at Garda stations. There have been long-standing issues in parts of the country with the availability of medical professionals to take blood samples from suspected drink or drug drivers, particularly overnight and during weekends. Prof Cusack said he has written to Mr Shatter asking him to set up a panel of medical professionals in each region who were available to take these samples. “This issue is being actively discussed at the moment,” he added.
The new drug-driving legislation will also have to specify the relationship between the presence of drugs and driving impairment as some drugs can remain in the body long after they have ceased to cause impairment. While there is legislation to provide for mandatory alcohol testing of drivers for alcohol, gardai will need to be given new powers to allow them conduct mandatory roadside tests for drugs.