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On the Road to Preventing Drug-Driving

It is July of 2017, and the Road Safety Authority of Ireland has just launched the newest road safety campaign – the prevention of driving under the influence of drugs.‘There is no hiding drug-driving,’ the advert strikes against a black screen, a stark contrast to the almost surrealist inner-monologue portrayed beforehand and to how Irish authorities have dealt with the issue previously. While a talking uvula betraying the number of joints you just smoked is quite comical, the message was aimed to be anything but. It is now two years on and, with recent reports flagging the increase in drug-consumption, we wonder – what now?

To drive while under the influence of drugs is relatively similar to that under drink – slow reaction times, inhibition of judgement, compromised vision and focus – but the difference is that with drugs, it is more difficult to set a definitive limit. While driving is considered dangerous when blood alcohol levels surpass 50mg, there is little way of regulating how much is too much for cannabis and others like it when strengths vary. Therefore, the recommendation is to not drive following the consumption of either. It is evident, however, that this rule is left unheeded by many – as reported by RTÉ, almost 700 drivers were detected as under the influence in January of 2019 alone.

Driving under the influence of drugs has been an offence since the 1960s, with Gardaí having the ability to test Irish drivers for drugs since 1999. Under the Road Traffic Act of 2016, new measures were taken to allow Gardaí to conduct preliminary drug tests on the roadside or in Garda stations. These tests are oral and test a driver’s saliva for the presence of cannabis, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines. Refusal to provide an oral sample can lead to a €5,000 fine, up to six months imprisonment or both. While tests such as this are effective in theory, if not carried out they are, naturally, completely futile.

The Irish Times reported in October of 2018 that, despite the target of 50,000 drug tests being set upon the advent of preliminary testing the year previous, less than 2,000 had actually been carried out in the 18-months between. This is in comparison to the 472,000 tests which had been conducted for alcohol. No comments were ever made by public representatives of the Gardaí in relation to these contrasting figures and some would be consequently inclined to believe that maybe we just don’t have a drug problem here in Ireland – would they be right?

Unfortunately, to neglect the rising figures of drug consumption in Ireland would only be a fruitless indulgence in denial as, without acknowledging the problem, we may jeopardise the safety of Irish roads. With cannabis being the most commonly detected drug, benzodiazepines are a close second – a highly addictive prescription drug used to treat anything from anxiety to migraines to insomnia. While substances such as cannabis and cocaine are unregulated as they are illegal, the lines become blurred when it is regulated, prescribed drugs that are the problem. In RTÉ’s most recent investigative report into the prescription of such medications, it was revealed that from 2012-2017, Cork North Lee recorded on average 17,500 benzodiazepine prescriptions, per 1,000 patients on the public drug schemes, per year. The highest of any county in the country and three times larger than the records of Galway, it is worrying that the county of Cork has limited records of drug-testing. Eighteen months from the introduction of preliminary roadside testing in the country, the Irish Times reported that just four had been fulfilled in Cork City. This disparity leaves a vacuum for potential road incidents and despite drug consumption being an obvious problem in the city, many continue to disregard it. Why is it that drug-driving is an issue that is overlooked by many in Ireland?

Irrefutably, there is a harsh reality to Irish sentiment towards substance-abuse which has materialised in the minimisation of the issue of drug-driving. While the increase in consumption has already been proven, it is obvious that many only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to drug use. Heroin is prejudicially equated with homelessness and cannabis is related to college students and hippies – they are stereotypes which we have not yet begun to dismantle here in Ireland. This is a fact which has become eclipsed and as a result neglects the dangers of overprescription of over-the-counter medicines, were innocently taken ‘Z drugs’ to help one sleep evolves into an unrealised addiction. The lack of awareness involving the dangers of addiction to prescription drugs increases the likelihood that such addictions cause drivers to go behind the wheel not knowing that they may be impaired.

As early as 2013, an anti-drug-driving ad commissioned by the RSA televised that, while under the influence of drugs ‘even the simple things are hard.’ It is a statement which resonates with those who recreationally get stoned or proactively take class A’s – but what about those who don’t recognise their impairment? Those who take prescription drugs just a bit too far, who take them to do the simple things like fall asleep or quell a migraine? The prevention of drug-driving must start at the root of the cause, grabbing the attention of those who do not recognise an addiction or do not realise the risk posed to driving when using a prescribed medicine. By no longer hiding their troubles from themselves, there will be less need to hide drug-driving. By entering into a conversation with a medical professional about the limitations of their prescriptions and the dangers of their medications, Irish roads can be made safer. By increasing mandatory drug-testing checkpoints across the country, drug-driving can be seen to be as hazardous as drink-driving. We could prevent the need to hide drug-driving and instead, eliminate it altogether.