Driving with alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medicines and some over-the-counter formulations in the blood is an unpalatable cocktail.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says driving is the most dangerous work activity that most people do and it contributes to far more work-related accidental deaths and serious injuries than anything else.
The legal drink-drive limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 50mg in Scotland. RoSPA points out, however, that the risk of crashing increases well below the legal limit.
Drivers with a blood alcohol level between 20mg per 100ml and 50mg per 100ml are three times more likely to be killed in a crash than those who have no alcohol in their blood, the safety charity says.
RoSPA, in a guidance document produced with the support of the Department for Transport, Driving for Work – Drink and Drugs, says intoxicants impair judgment, make drivers overconfident and therefore more likely to take risks, slow reactions, increase stopping distances, affect judgment of speed and distance and reduce field of vision.
They can also cause poorer concentration and confused thinking, distorted perception, poor co-ordination, erratic behaviour, aggression, panic attacks, paranoia, blurred vision, tremors, dizziness, cramps and severe fatigue the following day.
Even a small amount, well below the legal limit, seriously affects the ability to drive safely, and taking alcohol and drugs together can multiply the effects, RoSPA says.
When it comes to liquor, “never rely on trying to calculate accurately how much alcohol is in your body, and whether you are above or below the drink-drive limit,” it adds.
This is because the speed at which alcohol is absorbed varies dependent on a person’s size, age, weight and gender and whether they have eaten. The same amount of alcohol creates different blood alcohol levels in different people.
John Greenhough, RoSPA fleet safety consultant, adds that all drugs impair the body’s reactions in much the same way as alcohol does whether they are prescribed over the counter or recreational.
Businesses need to be aware not only of their requirement to deliver on their own health and safety/drug usage policies, but also to ensure their drivers and contractors adhere to Section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
This concerns “driving, or being in charge, when under influence of drink and drugs”, and addresses the offence of driving a vehicle while impaired through consumption of drugs or alcohol.
Section 5 allows for specified limits for how much alcohol can be present in a driver’s breath, blood or urine.
“Until recently, there was no equivalent for drug levels in drivers,” says Paul Yates, business development director of portable drug testing firm Intelligent Fingerprinting.
This changed in 2015 through implementation of new rules – Section 5A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 which prescribed upper limits for the level of specific controlled drugs, including the likes of painkiller codeine and tranquilliser diazepam in a driver’s blood as well as the biggies, such as heroin, speed and cocaine.
Susannah Robin, an alcohol and drug safety expert at AlcoDigital, which provides professional training and certified drugs and alcohol testing to organisations, points out that Codeine, for example, is found in common over-the-counter medicines, such as Nurofen Plus, Panadol Ultra and Syndol.
No legal obligation exists for the industry to adopt specific testing policies in their workplace, says Robin, but companies do have a duty of care to maintain a safe working environment under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
“If methods for detecting misuse are not implemented and an accident occurs, it is clear that employers could be held liable,” she warns.
Neil Greig, policy and research director at road-safety charity IAM RoadSmart, believes corporate manslaughter would be difficult to prove in the case of an accident that resulted in someone’s death “except in the most blatant of circumstances, such as if it could be proved the employer knowingly allowed a driver to get behind the wheel while clearly drunk or high”.
Andrew Drewary, road risk manager and consultant collision analyst, says there is no legal requirement for employers to undertake testing of staff.
However, he believes they should follow an approach of engagement, education and re-education.
“We should train people so they have an understanding of the legislation; train people so they have an understanding of what the potential consequences are for themselves or for the company and other individuals involved,” he says.
“This is a far better way of getting the point across.”
Drewary says employers should start asking awkward questions. “If they have an issue with a member of staff they need to tackle this head on.”
When it comes to testing employees for drugs and alcohol, the figures are depressing from a health and safety standpoint.
Drewary has carried out research that shows only about 22% of employers undertake some sort of testing process in the commercial and logistics industry.
He adds: “Within the company car industry I would say it’s not even half that amount. From a duty of care point of view, if an employer thinks somebody’s got a particular issue they are within their rights to ask the question.
"Then it comes down to internal processes and disciplinary processes.
“If someone refuses to take a test, the most sensible way for the company to deal with it is say ‘while we suspect you may have a problem, we are not going to allow you to go out and about and drive’.”
Yates says a written policy ensures there is no miscommunication or misunderstanding about where an organisation sits on alcohol and drug abuse at work.
The policy should consider five key elements: aims and definition, responsibility, rules and disciplinary action, safeguards and confidentiality linked with help.
“Having an effective alcohol/drug screening and testing service should be a critical element of any workplace drug policy,” he says.
"One of the main objectives of a good policy should be to establish an effective deterrent to stop the employee turning up unfit for work.”
Only regular random testing can achieve this, he says. “Given that the drug and alcohol policy forms part of the employee’s terms and conditions, a requirement for employee permissions isn’t required.”
Amey is one firm that does random testing. Julie Davies, group fleet and plant compliance manager in the company’s Fleet and Plant Group, says: “Testing is carried out randomly across all operations including all office-based staff. Tests are also carried out after any road traffic incident.“
The company’s alcohol and drugs policy says random testing is “impartial, genuinely random and affects everyone at all levels”.
Statistics from the Department for Transport, issued in August, show an estimated 9,040 people were killed or injured in drink-drive accidents in Great Britain in 2016 – the latest figures available.
That is a huge number of grieving fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, siblings and grandparents – a sobering thought.