Roadside ran­dom drug test­ing

Otago Daily Times - - EDITORIAL -

AL­CO­HOL breath­test­ing of drivers at check­points is a use­ful ar­row in the quiver of mea­sures to limit the road toll. The chance of be­ing caught will de­ter some, even if not all, from driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence.

But other drugs, too, im­pair the abil­ity to safely han­dle a mo­tor ve­hi­cle. They are also a sig­nif­i­cant cause of mo­tor crashes, of in­jury and death.

Ef­fec­tive test­ing for them, how­ever, is tech­no­log­i­cally and leg­isla­tively more dif­fi­cult — at least at present.

Na­tional MP Nick Smith has launched a pe­ti­tion from Nel­son call­ing for the ran­dom in­tro­duc­tion of test­ing. The Govern­ment it­self says it is some way down the track with this. There ap­pears to be the will. If only it was straight­for­ward.

For years, Na­tional MPs them­selves seemed to kick the is­sue down the road. Now, it is Labour’s turn to do the same. It is al­ways eas­ier to have the an­swers in Op­po­si­tion.

The In­sti­tute of En­vi­ron­men­tal Science and Re­search car­ries out drug and al­co­hol tests for the po­lice, Min­istry of Jus­tice and NZ Trans­port Agency. It warns the law would need chang­ing and a con­sen­sus re­quired on how screen­ing would be car­ried out be­fore roadside tests for drugs could go ahead.

The agency’s foren­sic tox­i­col­ogy and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal manager, Mary Jane McCarthy, has said, as well, it was not known what type of tech­nol­ogy might be used in ran­dom test­ing and it was dif­fi­cult to say when this could hap­pen. She noted lim­i­ta­tions to saliva tests, used over­seas.

Blood tests would be best. But tak­ing blood or urine sam­ples rou­tinely would be im­prac­ti­cal and in­va­sive. Al­co­hol, on the other hand, is quick and easy to screen with a breath test. The full blood test is in the back­ground as a fol­low­up.

It is al­ready an of­fence to drive with ev­i­dence in the blood­stream of a qual­i­fy­ing drug. But the pres­ence of the drug is not enough, as the Min­istry of Trans­port has ex­plained. There has to be im­pair­ment, and that needs to be demon­strated by un­sat­is­fac­tory per­for­mance of the com­pul­sory im­pair­ment test.

What hap­pens is a po­lice of­fi­cer first needs ‘‘good cause to sus­pect’’ drugs have been con­sumed. That cause might be er­ratic driv­ing, or, cru­cially, some­one at an al­co­hol check­point might pass a breath test but still be­have as though in­tox­i­cated.

The of­fi­cer then can make the driver take the test, which in­cludes an eye as­sess­ment, a walk­and­turn as­sess­ment and a one­leg stand test.

Should the per­son fail, the of­fi­cer can then for­bid the driver from driv­ing and may re­quired a blood test. About 90% of those tak­ing the blood test are sub­se­quently con­victed. But the num­ber is only about 400 a year, com­pared to about 30,000 al­co­hol driv­ing con­vic­tions.

The AA is push­ing for saliva tests, while the New Zealand Drug Foun­da­tion is cau­tious be­cause of in­ac­cu­ra­cies, be­liev­ing the test­ing is ex­pen­sive and ar­du­ous and the re­search showed it just was not there yet.

A key is­sue is to catch a level of likely im­pair­ment, not simply some trace of drugs. Cannabis, for ex­am­ple, can re­main in small lev­els in peo­ple’s sys­tems for a long time, long af­ter it has had any sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect.

The le­gal­i­sa­tion of medic­i­nal cannabis and the pos­si­bil­ity of loos­ened recre­ational use will raise fur­ther ques­tions about the need for roadside ran­dom tests.

New Zealand could fol­low over­seas mod­els and plunge ahead with ran­dom saliva tests, de­spite their lim­i­ta­tions and their po­ten­tial un­fair­ness and in­jus­tice. Or it could wait as tech­nol­ogy rapidly de­vel­ops for quicker and more ef­fec­tive tests.

It could well be New Zealand can­not wait for the bet­ter tech­nol­ogy be­cause of the dam­age drugged drivers cause. But this ex­tremely se­ri­ous mat­ter needs care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and de­bate — not just emo­tive re­sponses to the hor­ror of road crashes and the in­volve­ment of drugs.

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