From next week those who are found guilty of drug driving will lose their licence. The problem is both the science behind it and the implementation of the law.
From May 20 this year thousands of people will lose their license for “drug-driving” even though they do not pose a danger to anyone else on the roads, or themselves.
Changes forced through the Parliament at the end of last year mean people will receive on the spot fines and license suspensions for drug driving offences instead of having to go to court. This sounds like a good thing right? Paying a fine might be easier than going to court. It is not when you consider that at least 36% of those who currently go to court for these offences keep their license.
The reality is that in more than a third of cases happening now, the court looks at all the evidence and decides that the person should pay a fine and might keep their license. Changing to a fine and automatic loss of license means that 100% of those people are effectively found guilty. The government just wants to get more money, more convictions and more people losing their licenses.
These changes have nothing to do with road safety and everything to do with appealing to the tabloid media who don’t like it when the courts make a decision on the available facts and decide that certain behaviour does not warrant punishment.
The drug driving laws at the heart of this are widely discredited. The offence of drug driving relates to driving with the “presence” of just one of four drugs in your system. It is not about impairment. The courts have repeatedly criticised this offence with many magistrates pointing out how they are unjust and create disproportionate outcomes.
Appearing before a court, even without receiving a sanction, is a frightening and sobering experience that causes people to change their behaviour. It’s much more of a take-up moment than getting a fine in the mail.
The main problem with the “presence” offence is in the case of cannabis, which can remain in the blood days or even weeks after it has stopped having any impact on you. The roadside testing scheme can pick up these traces and see drivers lose their license for three months even though they were not impaired and were 100% safe to drive at the time of the test.
The scheme also doesn’t test for many drugs known to seriously impair road safety—including most notably benzodiazepines which are implicated in a high proportion of crashes in overseas jurisdictions.
We already know who the big losers will be from these laws, and it will be some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society including poor people, young people and First Nations people. They will lose their licenses and with them their jobs and livelihoods. We know from existing evidence that some of these people will, out of desperation, continue to drive without a license and face further criminal sanction.
In other states that have this system, notably Victoria, it has, in fact, increased reoffending. There is a solid reason for this. Appearing before a court, even without receiving a sanction from that court, is a frightening and sobering experience that causes people to change their behaviour. It’s much more of a take-up moment than getting a fine in the mail.
Instead of looking at what works, and treating people with dignity and respect, it has produced an automated one-size-fits-all system, where everyone rich or poor gets the same fine and everyone, regardless of their circumstances, loses their license.
Rather than recognising that the current scheme has no identifiable impact on road safety, they are pressing full steam ahead and ramping up the scheme with tens of thousands more tests carried out every year. This is bad public policy, it’s the war on drugs dressed up as road safety, and it won’t work.