Monday 27 January 2020

Alarming rise in drug-driving as record numbers fail roadside tests

Rise in number of road deaths as 148 people killed in 2019

Checks: Drug testing on the roadside is now more common. (Stock photo)
Checks: Drug testing on the roadside is now more common. (Stock photo)

Kevin Doyle, Hugh O'Connell and Catherine Devine

A huge rise in the number of motorists arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs was recorded last year, an Irish Independent analysis reveals.

While drink-driving is on course to be down moderately in 2019, figures show more people are taking drugs before getting behind the wheel.

In the first nine months of 2019, gardaí stopped 906 drivers who were assessed as being under the influence of cocaine, cannabis, opiates or benzodiazepines.

This is an almost three-fold jump on the same period in 2018, when 332 drivers were arrested.

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There were just 84 people arrested for drug-driving in the first nine months of 2017.

Road Safety Authority chief executive Moyagh Murdock said drug-driving has become a bigger problem in recent years.

She said drug-taking is more prevalent now that the economy is booming again and this is having a knock-on effect.

"People should just not be drinking and driving or drug-driving.

"Drug-driving is going to be a big concern going out in the future as well because a lot of young people are making the switch over from alcohol to drugs as well, so that is a concern," she said.

On Christmas Day alone, gardaí arrested 16 people for driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, up from 11 in 2018.

Three are believed to have had cocaine in their system, while a fourth is suspected to have taken cannabis.

Gardaí described the jump as "a huge increase and a worrying trend".

Since the Christmas road safety campaign began on November 29, there have been more than 650 drivers arrested on suspicion of intoxicated driving.

Gardaí were given the power to carry out a mandatory test for drugs, similar to an alcohol breathalyser, in 2017.

However, preliminary figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office show a huge variance in the number of detections across the country.

For example, the Kildare Garda Division recorded the largest number of drug-driving detections between January and September for the whole country. Gardaí in the county arrested 123 people.

Yet two other counties in the commuter belt area - Louth and Meath - were at the bottom of the list, with just five arrests between them, one in Louth and four in Meath.

Dublin's five Garda regions accounted for 229 arrests, but again the figures varied depending on the area of the city.

The Cavan/Monaghan district was also noteworthy for having a high number of arrests. Gardaí in the two Border counties stopped 114 drivers who were under the influence of drugs.

While driving after taking drugs has been illegal since the 1960s, the introduction of roadside testing has made it easier for gardaí to determine whether an offence has occurred.

Drivers are asked to breathe into a device, and readings will show the presence of a range of drugs.

The process takes longer than an alcohol test - around 15-20 minutes.

If an oral fluid tests positive for cannabis or cocaine, a driver is arrested and brought to the station, where a blood specimen is collected and sent for analysis.

If a driver is found to have taken benzodiazepines or opiates and the garda is of the opinion that they are impaired, the motorist will also be arrested.

A study from the coroner's district in Kildare between 1998 and 2009 found that almost one in 10 drivers killed had a positive toxicology test for a drug or drugs.

In relation to drink-driving, the number of motorists caught for these offences has fallen since tougher new laws introduced an automatic driving ban of three months on conviction.

In 2018, there were 5,281 arrests for drink-driving in the first nine months of the year. Preliminary statistics for the same period of this year show there were 4,955 arrests.

Deaths on Irish roads

Meanwhile, the Road Safety Authority (RSA) has revealed that almost 150 people died on Irish roads in 2019.

This is a 4pc increase in the number of road deaths in 2018.

148 people lost their lives in 2019, compared to 142 in 2018 - which was the safest recorded year on Irish roads.

The figures also show that the numbers of pedestrian and passenger deaths have both declined in 2019 with pedestrian deaths down 36pc and passenger deaths down 20pc.

However, 25 more drivers lost their lives in the last year than in 2018.

The Chairperson of the RSA Liz O'Donnell has said that the overall year on year increase is "deeply saddening".

"We must respond to this increase the same way we have responded to previous setbacks. Rather than being disheartened it should spur us and our road safety partners into renewed effort."

Ms O'Donnell also called for "deeper collaboration" between road safety agencies to ensure a decrease in road deaths.

Irish Independent

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