Be cau­tious driv­ing when you take drugs

Whangarei Report - - OPINION -

It’s a pain not be­ing able to drive. You lose your in­de­pen­dence, be­come de­pen­dent on oth­ers’ timeta­bles and you feel there is some­thing miss­ing in your life.

The facts of life for me is not be­ing al­lowed to drive and quite can­didly, be­ing un­safe be­hind the wheel, as knee re­place­ment surgery has been a whole new ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter putting up with the pain for a few years, the in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend “Joint Camp” was the start of the re­al­i­sa­tion that it was go­ing to change.

You are told what to ex­pect to hap­pen, what you need to learn to do be­fore­hand, what you will and won’t be able to do after­wards, and most im­por­tantly, you need to man­age your pain.

“You won’t be able to drive for six weeks,” was one salu­tary com­ment. “Does that mean I won’t be able to or not al­lowed to drive,” was my in­no­cent ques­tion. The re­ply was, “Well, you won’t be able to drive phys­i­cally sat­is­fac­to­rily and you won’t be in­sured if you do.” That kind of ended the dis­cus­sion.

It’s been an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and a great trib­ute to my wife and all the pro­fes­sion­als in­volved that six weeks af­ter the op, I was back be­hind the wheel. But it is not so much the phys­i­cal ef­fects of the knee re­place­ment that makes me ex­tra cau­tious. You can ex­er­cise, prac­tice and grad­u­ally get the knee work­ing again and six weeks is about right to be able to phys­i­cally drive. The pain man­age­ment re­quire­ment though is on­go­ing and it is not so clear cut about how the ef­fects of pain med­i­ca­tion, im­pairs your driv­ing.

The whole is­sue of pre­scrip­tion drug driv­ing could be big­ger than we imag­ine. We do know that cer­tain pre­scrip­tion drugs cause drowsi­ness. We also know that around 90 per cent of peo­ple over the age of 65 use some sort of med­i­ca­tion. In fact, ac­cord­ing to one study, by the time you reach 70 you could be tak­ing five or more pills per day.

Many peo­ple be­lieve the com­bi­na­tion of drugs makes them safe to drive be­cause the doc­tor did not specif­i­cally warn them oth­er­wise. But there is a rea­son­able chance the com­bi­na­tion could cause drowsi­ness and make us a po­ten­tial dan­ger be­hind the wheel.

There is a need for driver and pre­scriber cau­tion in alert­ing about po­ten­tial drugged driver im­pair­ment.

Driv­ers tak­ing pre­scrip­tion drugs pales be­side the is­sue of il­le­gal drugs and po­ten­tial com­bi­na­tion with al­co­hol. A re­cent

Wash­ing­ton Post commentary iden­ti­fied that, in the US for the first time, driv­ers killed in crashes are more likely to be on drugs than be­ing over the le­gal limit for al­co­hol. The num­ber of driv­ers who tested pos­i­tive for drugs af­ter dy­ing in a crash rose from 28 per cent in 2005 to 43 per cent in 2015.

Ac­cord­ing to the commentary these dates co­in­ci­dently align with pro­gres­sively more per­mis­sive laws in the States cov­er­ing the use of mar­i­juana. The med­i­cal use of mar­i­juana at that stage was al­lowed in 29 of the 50 States with de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion and recre­ational use be­ing in­creas­ingly per­mit­ted as well. There is a warn­ing sig­nal here as our New Zealand politi­cians pon­der the med­i­cal use and de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of mar­i­juana as part of our own way of life.

The ques­tion of drugged driv­ing is com­pli­cated, but there is a strong case for in­creased po­lice pow­ers and re­sources in re­la­tion to ran­dom road­side test­ing for il­le­gal drugs. The blood al­co­hol stan­dard of 0.05mg/100ml of blood can be read­ily as­cer­tained with an in­dica­tive breath test and a con­fir­ma­tory breath or blood test, but test­ing for drugs is much more in­volved.

If a driver passes a breath al­co­hol test but ap­pears to be clearly im­paired, the test­ing of­fi­cer has the op­tion of a com­pul­sory im­pair­ment test. This in­volves walk­ing a straight line, stand­ing on one leg and putting your fin­ger to the end of your nose. Fail­ure here ini­ti­ates a com­pul­sory blood test and any trace of il­le­gal drugs car­ries an over the limit con­vic­tion.

The process takes three to four hours per pro­ce­dure and re­quires spe­cific train­ing and com­mit­ment from the of­fi­cers in­volved. Our North­land po­lice team as a smaller po­lice dis­trict is car­ry­ing out the sec­ond high­est num­ber of drug im­pair­ment tests in the coun­try. Ran­dom road­side test­ing, in­volv­ing a saliva test, has been es­tab­lished pro­ce­dure in Aus­tralia for some years now but our New Zealand politi­cians are drag­ging the chain in in­tro­duc­ing this ca­pa­bil­ity here.

The con­texts of driv­ing while im­paired by al­co­hol, il­le­gal drugs and pre­scrip­tion drugs are quite dif­fer­ent but can have the same dis­as­trous out­come. My ex­pe­ri­ence with knee surgery with the re­cov­ery and at­ten­dant pain man­age­ment has sharp­ened for me, that driv­ing safely is not just about phys­i­cally be­ing able to drive.

Drive safely, en­joy your driv­ing and share the road.

John Wil­liamson is chair­man of Road­safe North­land and North­land Road Safety Trust, for­mer na­tional coun­cil­lor for NZ Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion and for­mer Whanga¯ rei Dis­trict Coun­cil mem­ber.


There is a need for driver and pre­scriber cau­tion in alert­ing about po­ten­tial drugged driver im­pair­ment.

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