As a result of both the reduction in road policing teams and roadside drug testing capacity, the number of roadside drug tests conducted in the UK is following a downward trend. However, with the percentage of tests that are conducted coming back positive on the rise, there are fears - as confirmed by the Scottish Police Authority - that the number of drug-driving offences on our roads could soon outstrip drink-driving offence numbers.
It is clear that drug-driving is a growing problem, and one that requires intervention. But with a shortfall in policing resources, slashed policing budgets and reports revealing that “the volume of blood samples taken following positive roadside tests exceeded the capacity of forensic service providers”, resulting in backlogs as well as prosecution time limits being missed, is there a solution?
The role of effective roadside drug testing
Roadside drug testing can reduce the risks that drug-driving poses to road users in two different ways. Firstly, by conducting tests at the roadside and dealing with individuals with positive test results in the appropriate way, such a programme can take offenders off the road and potentially encourage them to avoid offending again in the future.
Secondly, if a roadside drug-testing programme is rigorously adhered to - and road users know that this is the case - it can act as a deterrent to those who are considering driving under the influence of drugs.
However, government data reveals that the total spend on roads policing in England and Wales fell by 34% between 2013 and 2019. In March 2015, a new law came into force in England and Wales, making it a criminal offence to drive when above certain specified limits for 16 different substances, eight of which are often prescribed as medication. Accompanying this new law was the introduction of roadside screening tests for cocaine and cannabis, as well as tests conducted at police stations for other substances.
Since then, the number of tests carried out has decreased, while the number of positive tests has increased. With these statistics suggesting that offending behaviour is continuing to rise, what can be done differently to tackle this growing problem?
The here and now - and the future
Currently, police forces in England, Wales and Scotland use a “drugalyser” kit for roadside drug testing: an oral fluid test that gives an indicative result of exposure to a substance. If a positive reading is obtained, further testing will be required: the driver will need to be taken to the police station, where a trained medic will be brought in to take a blood sample for testing.
However, with impairment tests taking 10 to 15 minutes to complete, the resources and funding required for both oral fluid and at-station blood testing, and the limited capacity of the force’s forensic service provider, things need to change.
There are, however, other roadside testing options that could be explored. While oral fluid tests are likely to remain the standard for roadside testing, finger prick blood testing can easily be conducted in place of the blood tests normally conducted at the police station. With a highly portable kit that allows for easy collection, transportation and storage of samples, the officer simply takes a few drops of blood from the driver’s fingertip, in a highly sensitive and accurate test that can establish substance use in the previous hours.
With finger prick testing covering a greater number of substances than the current drugalyser solution, this could improve the likelihood of picking up a greater number of drivers who are under the influence of illegal substances.
A further drug testing method could also be used to rehabilitate drivers who have tested positive for drug-driving, helping them to get their licence back. Hair drug testing can show trends in drug use over time, establishing both historic and more recent usage levels. These tests can be used to demonstrate whether an individual has increased, decreased or cut out substance use altogether: a highly reliable and accurate means of determining an individual’s fitness to drive.
With millions of road users’ lives at stake through increased levels of drug-driving, it is clear that the current roadside testing programme is not working as it should. Could a combination of finger prick blood testing and longer term hair testing prove a viable alternative?
For more information on these - and other - methods of drug testing, get in touch.