The Government’s proposal to curb drug-driving is a car-crash

A short version of this blog post was published in the Guardian

I don’t know about you, but I find that the old “Would You Rather?” game helps liven up long motorway journeys. Here we go…

Would You Rather that the car ahead of you was driven by Paul, who just knocked back the hair of the dog at the motorway services pub before merging back into your lane from the slip road…

Or Would You Rather be behind Rob, who is alert, has his eyes on the road, but shared a cannabis joint earlier on in the day?

Now when I tried this question out earlier, the first answer I got was “That’s a plainly leading question, not a balanced dilemma. You clearly don’t know how Would You Rather works”.

The correct answer I’m looking for to set up this article is “I’d definitely rather drive behind Rob. He’s probably as clear-headed as I am if a few hours have passed since the joint. Half-drunk Paul might be dangerous though. And what’s a motorway services pub? No-one would allow that”.

The Government see things differently and have plans afoot.  Regulations preventing alcohol sales on Highway Agency sites, they believe, are stifling the development of motorway branches of Wetherspoon and similar big pub corporations and should probably be removed. If Paul can stay just south of our generous legal drink-driving limit, (not that anyone will be breathalysing people as they leave the pub) his drug use is an essential part of the economic recovery. This Government prides itself on cutting regulatory red tape. I just hope that less red tape at the roadside doesn’t mean more of the fluttering blue and white kind bearing the word ‘POLICE’.

What about Rob? Under Government proposals, if a microgram of THC (from cannabis) can be found in a pint and a bit of his blood, (enough to be sure he hasn’t simply walked too slowly past a cannabis smoker), then he should be prosecuted as a drug-driver. Whether or not Rob is in possession of cannabis, actually intoxicated, or in any way a danger to road users, is immaterial. The Government have announced that they want a “zero-tolerance approach” to drivers whose bodies contain definitive traces of any one of a blacklist of 8 controlled drugs.  They openly state that they don’t want to take a consistent "risk-based" approach to drivers using drugs; an approach that aims to discourage and punish those who drive when their blood contents suggests they are unfit to do so; they would prefer to use the Road Traffic act to get “tough” on people who test positive for an arbitrary selection of the wrong drugs, and so “send a message” to us all about the unacceptability of drug use. Some drug use. The “risk-based approach” as recommended by their scientific advisors is fine for alcohol, sleeping pills, morphine, just not for cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and 5 others. This is, they say, to avoid sending “mixed messages”.

I probably don’t need to tell you that “sending messages” of any kind isn’t really what the Road Traffic Act is supposed to be for. Evidence abounds that messages of toughness or liberality expressed by drug laws have no clear effect on levels of drug use. Disproportionate toughness will not prevent car wrecks, but lives and careers will be wrecked through criminalisation. Yes, driving when properly ‘stoned’ is one of the only ways cannabis can kill, and needs to be tackled. A risk-based cannabis-limit can do that. Zero tolerance to drivers who ever use cannabis is more likely to make things worse. In US those states where medical cannabis has been legalised, there are fewer deaths on the road, probably because people switch to cannabis from alcohol. Both drugs dangerously impair driving, but they are strikingly unequal in their relative risks. In a dataset (France 2001-2003) where an equal proportion of drivers have alcohol in their system as cannabis, the drinkers cause more than ten times as many fatal crashes.

Changes to the Road Traffic Act should be directed at maximising its fairness and functionality; “messages” are best sent through education not legislation. The extra enforcement costs of pursuing not just intoxicated drivers, (the ones who put us all at risk), but any drivers who test positive for traces of the blacklisted substances, will be a big drain on resources. On the other hand, following the evidence-based approach instead, by the government’s own estimates is much more favourable, with the value of preventing casualties more than outweighing the costs of enforcement.

Once again, the Government commissioned a team of scientists to set out the facts and make evidence-based recommendations, and then resolved to stick with their own prejudices. The Government’s plan, and two alternatives (one being to accept the expert recommendations in full), was set out in a Government Consultation which has now closed, but you can still have your say in this “would you rather” game that actually matters by contacting your MP. Their assent is needed for this amendment to the Road Traffic Act to be adopted. You’ll find more details in the ISCD's submission to the consultation here

Of course the Government decided that its arbitrary zero-tolerance drug blacklist would be incomplete without including a drug unparalleled in its fearful symbolic potency; LSD. What can be deduced from their choice to ignore the experts and add LSD to the list? It seems they could have picked any number of other drugs with equal or greater justification; the more prevalent, less notorious drug psilocybin (magic mushrooms), or the even more popular and legal drug salvia. As the Expert Panel’s leader Dr Wolff notes, neither LSD nor psilocybin have ever been detected in anyone apprehended in the UK for drug driving, nor in any driver involved in a smash. The Expert Panel sagely noted that tripping on mushrooms or LSD “is not likely to be compatible with the skills required for driving”, (perhaps after consulting with Jon Snow), and recommended that forensic evidence from drivers and crashes be monitored so that evidence-based LSD or psilocybin or indeed salvia limits might be proposed in future. 

But the Government doesn’t intend to wait to get tough on the LSD “menace” (yes that word was really used). Could it possibly be that the ‘message’ – a Government standing strong against the drug scourge – has priority over actual evidence of any serious preventable threat? Are LSD-addled drivers top of the list of traffic safety worries? I previously pointed out that vehement anti-cat posturing by the Government would be rather more proportionate than their drug policies. Apologies for revisiting a theme, but Road Minister Stephen Hammond should take note that when British drivers see airborne cats zoom past their windscreens, that’s less likely to be an LSD-induced hallucination than the result of the 40% of pet-owners who, with no legal requirement to do so, don’t restrain their pets in the car. Why not institute zero tolerance on that? Whilst battling the as-yet undetected scourge of drivers on LSD or mushrooms, Hammond seems blithely unconcerned that bloody cats are wreaking destruction on our roads in ways both obvious and terrifyingly discreet

To conclude on a serious note, there’s a danger that people imagine that “totemic toughness” on drugs is cost-free, a good way of demonstrating to ourselves that we care about the tragedies caused by intoxicated drivers. Don’t be fooled. Policymakers who block out inconvenient evidence to pursue “totemic toughness” are rarely vindictive, indeed many see themselves as holding the moral high ground against cold scientific rationalists. They could hardly be more wrong. The moral basis is clear for criminalising intoxicated drivers. Testing a driver’s blood against an evidence-based limit, as recommended by the experts, provides a fair and objective legal standard for punishing a reckless behaviour that the public largely agree to be wrong. However, with the zero tolerance approach, the blood test is being put to an alarming new purpose, and gains a whole new meaning. Rather than being merely a tool that helps implement our existing values (that driving when impaired is wrong), the test itself becomes the moral arbiter that identifies if drivers are criminals. We are surrendering our measure of right and wrong to a forensic test.