Police forces across the UK are cracking down on drug-driving with a significant increase in convictions since roadside drug screening devices starting being deployed a year ago.
According to statistics released by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, 1,301 people were convicted of driving while under the influence of drugs in England and Wales between March and October last year, compared to 848 convictions between March and December 2014.
The latest monthly data is only available up to October 2015, with the highest conviction rate for drug-driving recorded in September 2015, at 300.
Figures for December 2015 have been released, however, to coincide with the annual national drink- and drug-drive campaign run by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
That data showed 1,888 drug screening devices were administered by officers with almost 50% of people stopped found to be under the influence of drugs.
More people were detected for drug-driving in December 2015 than in the whole of 2014.
Arrests were up by 800% in some forces. Provisional figures show that in Cheshire alone officers arrested eight times as many suspected drug drivers than in 2014, with more than 530 from March 2015 to January 2016 – up from 70 in the whole of the previous year.
However, despite the rapid rise in arrests and convictions for drug-driving, fleets are being warned that the increase could be the tip of the iceberg and should consider screening drivers.
The increase in convictions has coincided with the Government’s toughening up of drug-driving laws and restrictions on 17 legal and illegal drugs, with appropriately low limits for illegal drugs.
Drug detection devices have also made it easier to identify and prosecute offenders, with police forces being given an extra £1 million to train officers, purchase drug screening equipment and pay for samples to be analysed.
Police officers started drug-testing drivers at the roadside from March 2 last year. The conviction rate had been falling since 2012, but has been boosted since the new laws came into effect.
The Government has launched a new advertising campaign targeted at young men who are most likely to drug-drive – to make it clear that if you drug drive, you’re more likely to be caught and convicted as a result of the roadside swab.
Ean Lewin, managing director of Dtec International, which provides all 43 police forces in England and Wales with drug testing kits, told Fleet News: “The rest of Europe shows us drug-driving is at a similar level to drink-driving.”
In Germany, for example, where police also use Dtec’s DrugWipe testing kit, 35,000 drivers fail drug-driving roadside tests each year.
The latest available drink-driving statistics for England and Wales showed that 72,000 people were convicted for drink-driving in 2013.
If this was replicated with drug-driving, it would dwarf the rates currently being reported and, with research suggesting that one in five people in Britain regularly use drugs, Lewin’s concerns could be well-placed.
He said that in another year or so the true drug-driving picture may emerge, along with some more funding to help boost enforcement further.
“One force has increased drink- and drug-driving arrests to 10% of the whole force’s arrests, and they are working to increase that further,” he continued.
“The police are also being told to specifically follow-up on workplace drug-drivers, so fleets had better have a policy and they’d better be using it.”
Lewin said that, as well as fleets making sure they have a drink- and drug-driving policy in place, it is important to prove it is being properly implemented.
“That is the only thing that will stop or reduce your corporate manslaughter responsibilities,” he added.
A drug-driving conviction will bring a minimum of a one-year driving ban, an unlimited fine, up to six months in prison and a criminal record. A drug-driver’s licence will also show the conviction for 11 years.
The FOI request shows information from when records began in October 2011, with 4,624 people convicted of drug-driving over the past four years.
Of that total, 15 caused a death by careless driving when unfit through drugs.
Four people were killed due to drug-driving in 2014, and there were three deaths up to October 2015.
As a caveat to the accuracy of the statistics, the DVLA said: “The drivers’ database changes constantly as the agency receives driving licence applications and other information that updates the records of individual drivers.
“Therefore, it is possible only to provide a snapshot of the state of the record.”
Mike Bristow, spokesman for road safety charity Brake, said: “While drink-driving is now seen as socially unacceptable, the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs are not as well known.”
Brake believes fatalities due to drug-driving are much higher, estimating up to 200 deaths a year in the UK.
Bristow continued: “With police now having the power to test for drugs at the roadside, there is no hiding place for those who engage in this behaviour and endanger lives.
“It’s fantastic to see the number of convictions rising but, with traffic policing being hit hard by budget cuts, more drivers could still be escaping prosecution.
“Every day we see the devastating consequences of crashes caused by drug-drivers and people need to understand that these substances will seriously affect their ability to drive safely.”
The Institute for Advanced Motorists (IAM) Safety Culture Index report demonstrated that drink- and drug-drivers are high up on the agenda of the biggest concerns for other road users.
While texting and using smartphones for social media at the wheel were the two biggest factors threatening drivers’ personal safety for the 2,000 motorists surveyed (93% and 92% respectively), drink-driving and drug-driving followed at 90% and 89%.
The IAM believes the report highlights the key areas of road safety and police enforcement priorities that will command the highest levels of public support.
Neil Greig, IAM director of policy and research, said that initially some police forces were slow to enforce the new drug-driving legislation.
But he believes there is now a consistent approach across England and Wales, to the point where “anyone driving under the influence of drugs has a high chance of being caught”.
The crackdown on drug-driving has also had a knock-on effect for crime overall, with the new powers resulting in other offences being detected when drivers suspected of being impaired by drugs have been pulled over.
The IAM is now calling for the same drug-driving laws to be implemented in Scotland.
Greig said: “The Scottish Government just needs to enact the same legislation so that drivers there can enjoy the level of security and reassurance of their English and Welsh counterparts.
“It makes little sense to us that a country which is leading on lower drink-drive limits is taking so long to adopt a similar approach for drugs.”