Drugged Driving: British Study Finds One-Third of Drivers Who Test Positive for Drugs Pass Roadside Impairment Tests 4/14/06

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A study released April 3 by the British Department for Transportation found that one-third of drivers who tested positive for illegal drugs drove well enough to pass roadside impairment tests. The study found that well-trained police doing Field Impairment Tests (FITS) -- where officers ask drivers to walk in a straight line, touch their fingers to their noses, and similar tasks -- were unable to detect any noticeable impairment in those drivers.

The FITS do not test for the presence of a specific substance in the body. Instead, they test a driver's ability to carry out tasks involving balance, judgment, and ability to follow complex instructions -- precisely the abilities needed to safely operate an automobile. Drug tests do not measure impairment, but the presence of a drug or its metabolites in the body.

The Association of Chief Police Officers in the United Kingdom has called for new laws that would make a positive drug test the only evidence needed to support a conviction for drugged driving, a position similar to that of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is pushing for drugged driving bills in states across the country. Proponents of such measures liken them to laws against drug drinking, where drivers are presumed to be impaired above a certain blood alcohol level. But unlike the drunk driving laws, drugged driving laws set that limit at zero.

The British police chiefs have the backing of the RAC Foundation, the charitable offshoot of the Royal Automobile Club, a rough British equivalent to the American Auto Association. In a Monday press release, the foundation said it "supports ACPO's suggestion that a positive road-side drug test should be the only evidence needed to take these drivers off the road."

Oddly for an organization that proclaims it is about "protecting the interest of the motorist," the foundation complained that police had to actually show someone was impaired to arrest him for driving while impaired. "The fight against drug-driving is also made more difficult by the need to prove not just that the driver has taken drugs but also that their driving is impaired as a result," the foundation said.

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Issue #431 -- 4/14/06

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