DRIVERS will next month face stringent US-style roadside tests for drugs, the Irish Independent has learned.
Gardai will be able to check drivers' eyes for dilated pupils and carry out other physical co-ordination tests.
The tests, commonplace in America, will also include ordering a driver to stand on one leg and walk in a straight line.
Motorists who pass the drink-driving breath test and appear intoxicated cannot currently be checked for drugs at the roadside.
But the scourge of drug driving has become a serious threat to lawful road users and the crackdown is designed to make the roads safer. Other checks on steadiness will include having drivers open and shut their eyes to detect possible drug use.
Under the tough new law, a driver who refuses to submit to the roadside test can be fined €5,000 and jailed for six months.
With more than 700 drug-driving convictions a year, road safety experts and gardai believe the new laws will lead to a surge in convictions.
It means that 'high' drivers who think they can beat the system by not consuming alcohol will run a far higher risk of being arrested and brought to a garda station.
Professor Denis Cusack, head of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety which analyses suspect blood and urine samples, revealed gardai were being trained in drug impairment testing, including how to recognise people with genuine medical issues.
Officers are being shown how to develop drug-drive recognition techniques by the bureau.
Gardai who form an opinion that a driver is on drugs after failing the impairment test can then arrest the driver and bring them to the local garda station.
There they will have to submit to a blood or urine sample and will be prosecuted if the test is positive.
Outgoing Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said yesterday there was increasing evidence that more and more drivers were under the influence of drugs.
"A lot of young people who would not dream of driving under the influence of alcohol would smoke a joint (a cannabis cigarette) and drive," he told the Irish Independent.
"This new roadside impairment drug test is a good interim step until we get a test similar to the breath test for alcohol. It will be another weapon in the arsenal of the gardai," he added.
The roadside drug-test powers are contained in the Road Safety Act 2010 but cannot be rolled out until the training of gardai is completed.
It comes as research by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) among 1,000 people aged 17-34 reveals that one in five people (22pc) admit to being a passenger in a car driven by a person high on drugs.
The most common drugs involved include cannabis/marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. Increasingly, drivers have taken a cocktail of different drugs.
Alarmingly, one in 20 drivers admitted to driving under the influence of so-called recreational drugs in the past.
The aim was to have the system rolled out during the year, targeting drivers under the influence of drugs.
Prof Cusack said that there would be a range of roadside tests and gardai would be trained to check for motorists with a range of medical conditions, such as stroke and arthritis.
"This test is in line with that used internationally, in the absence of a single roadside device to check for drugs."
Prof Cusack said that while cannabis was the most widely used drug by drug drivers, cocaine use was on the increase.
The new system means that a garda carrying out roadside checkpoints or stopping drivers for erratic behaviour will be in a position to "form an opinion" that motorists are under the influence of drugs, after ruling out alcohol.
This is similar to the old powers under which gardai tested drink drivers before they were able to carry out random breath tests.
There were 700 drug-driving prosecutions last year but this is expected to increase dramatically when the roadside impairment test is introduced.
Driving under the influence of drugs is regarded by road safety chiefs as being just as dangerous as drink driving.
Noel Brett, RSA chief executive, welcomed the new drug test and said it would greatly help to reduce the scourge of drug driving.