When I started out in road safety there was one measure I thought I'd never see introduced: The equivalent of a simple, roadside breathalyser to detect drug driving.
We have, for some time now, developed technology to detect alcohol levels in drivers, but a similar scenario that would detect multiple drugs seemed far-fetched.
In the absence of a drugs breathalyser, a Garda has to form an opinion that a driver is under the 'Influence' to take action against a driver suspected of drug driving.
An alcohol breath test can be carried out at the roadside and used to establish if alcohol is in excess of the legal limit. However, if it is not and the Garda suspects the driver is impaired, the person can be arrested and taken to the station where a doctor can take a blood or urine specimen. The specimen is then sent to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety (MBRS) for analysis to confirm the presence or absence of impairing drugs.
In 2014, Impairment Testing was introduced to assist the Gardai to gather evidence. It provided additional powers to test drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. As part of this, drivers are required to undergo five impairment tests, for Pupil Dilation, Modified Romberg Balance, Walk and Turn, One Leg Stand and Finger to Nose.
The process is not as simple as the one in place to detect alcohol in drivers.
Well, fast forward to the present and drug detection tools are now available. The equivalent of a breathalyser for drugs is about to become a reality in this country because roadside screening for drugs will be introduced this Easter.
The new device is called the Drager 5000. It's light, portable and about the size of a computer hard-drive. It uses oral fluid to test for seven types of the most commonly abused drugs. But initially, in Ireland, it will be used to detect four: cocaine, opiates (like morphine and heroin), benzodiazepines (Valium-like drugs) and cannabis in drivers.
Another important change that's on the way, which was introduced by recent legislation, is that a garda won't have to prove a driver is impaired when it comes to the presence of cannabis, cocaine and heroin. If a driver is found to have these drugs (above the 'per se' or scientific limits set) in their body it will be a new offence. This is in line with how alcohol has been treated for some time in Irish road traffic law.
The old offence of having the drug present in your system, where impairment has been established by the gardai, will still exist and carries a greater penalty than the new 'presence of the drug alone' offence.
So in effect there will be a zero tolerance for drugs that are not licensed for human medicinal use (e.g. cannabis and cocaine).
A different approach will be taken for prescribed (e.g. opiates and benzodiazepine) or over the counter drugs. It will only be an offence if there is a confirmed presence of these drugs with impairment.
It is important that people legitimately taking prescription medicines are not alarmed by the new drug driving laws and enforcement. Drivers with medical conditions should continue to take their prescribed medications in accordance with the advice of their doctor or pharmacist. Just be aware of how the drugs you are taking affect your ability to drive. If you do suffer side effects, speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
Driving under the influence of drugs remains a significant problem in Ireland. Between 2009-2015, the MBRS found that of 9,734 specimens of blood and urine tested for the presence of a drug or drugs, 6,232, confirmed positive.
Research suggests that many drug drivers see little risk of being detected.
Those days are about to come to an end.