14 December 2022

Drugs found in half of all drivers involved in fatal crashes this year

| Lottie Twyford
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Police cars during road safety operation on Monaro Highway

Drugs and driving are “wicked problems” that no jurisdiction has yet solved. Photo: ACT Policing.

After a horror year on the Territory’s roads, data from ACT Policing has revealed a high percentage of drivers involved in fatal accidents had drugs in their system.

Of the drivers who could be tested, 70 per cent had cannabis in their system while 50 per cent had both cannabis and alcohol or methamphetamine (also referred to as methylamphetamine).

When taking into account those who were not tested, just under 50 per cent of all drivers had drugs detected.

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Police data provided in response to a question on notice taken as part of the ACT Legislative Assembly inquiry into dangerous driving confirmed 15 separate fatal crashes in the year to November resulting in 18 deaths.

Police have so far been able to run toxicity tests on 10 of the 15 drivers involved in these incidents, including those who died.

Seven of these had marijuana in their system and five had not only marijuana but also methamphetamine or alcohol as well.

Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan

Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan has urged Canberrans to drive responsibly. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

While police have publicly confirmed they believe alcohol and/or drugs played a role in most crashes, this has yet to be confirmed by coronial inquiries in most cases.

Police have previously stated their concern that drug decriminalisation could lead to community perception that driving under the influence of drugs is acceptable.

ACT Policing Operations Commander Linda Champion said it was frustrating for police when people “blatantly disregarded” road rules and road safety and drove under the influence of drugs.

“While there are legislative changes pending regarding the possession of small amounts of certain drugs, it remains illegal to drive a motor vehicle with any illicit substances in your system,” she said.

“Importantly – the presence of illicit drugs, including cannabis, methylamphetamine and cocaine in any driver’s blood or saliva remains an offence.

“We know there are road users who believe they can take medicinal or recreational cannabis and then later drive a vehicle. This is not the case. For as long as the substance is in your system, it is an offence to drive.”

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In the last three financial years, the number of fatalities that involved a driver with cannabis or other drugs in their system has increased from three in 2019-20 to four in 2020-21 and eight in 2021-22.

Laws that decriminalised small amounts of cannabis came into effect in the Territory in 2020. A further swathe of drug decriminalisation laws for substances like ice, meth and cocaine will come into effect next year.

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson has been behind the drug decriminalisation push.

He described the issues relating to drugs and driving as “wicked problems”.

Michael Pettersson in the Legislative Assembly

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson introduced both sets of drug decriminalisation laws to the ACT Legislative Assembly. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Mr Pettersson stressed that driving under the influence was entirely different from possessing small amounts of drugs and that driving while affected by any substance was “remarkably dangerous”.

“The response from the state needs to be [criminal sanctions] for drug driving … it’s the only response to take,” Mr Pettersson told Region.

“For a person caught possessing the substance not behind a wheel, the response needs to be a health-based one to reduce the harms they may potentially cause to others.”

But Mr Pettersson described these issues as “wicked problems” which neither he nor technology had the answer for yet.

“I’m very sympathetic to the argument that someone was not impaired on the road, but they had the presence of these substances in their system,” he said.

“It’s a terrible situation, but in keeping our roads safe, we have to be overly punitive.”

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He said some of the complexity of drug testing and impairment was that each substance had different effects.

“To use cannabis as an example, we know that remains in drivers’ systems for a very long time, long after you’re impaired,” he said.

“Our drug detection system relies on detection, not impairment. There is potentially a very real issue there because people on our roads could face serious drug charges if they are not actually impaired.

“But for other substances, like cocaine, there’s a higher likelihood that if drug tests can detect it, you’re impaired by it.”

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A spokesperson for the ACT Government said the ACT has a zero-tolerance approach to drug driving which means a driver cannot have any amount of a drug in their system at any time.

This is unlike the approach taken to alcohol where there is a prescribed acceptable limit.

This is despite the fact sometimes drivers have had drugs detected in their system when they have not consumed the substance for a number of days.

No technological developments have yet been able to establish a causal link between specific levels of drugs and impairment, which can be applied across the population, the ACT Government spokesperson said.

The government would continue to monitor this space, the spokesperson confirmed.

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Frankly, I do not see a difficult issue here. We live in a risk based society. You take/consumers substances known to affect the way you respond to inputs, means you change how you will operate a car. Simple, you need to choose between you recreational drug of choice and driving. Risk to other road and path users is too great. We have supplied the Tram. Use it.

Capital Retro10:27 am 18 Dec 22

Can’t find the tram stops in Tuggers. Can you advise?

Stay home and detox?

I can’t recall the last time I saw a large RBT/MDT setup in Canberra. Maybe once in the 24 years I have lived here.

Tom McLuckie12:31 pm 16 Dec 22

We have the lowest ratio in the country for policing. Some of the lowest rates of solving crime and having a conviction. This is across all crime types. As per latest ACTPS Annual report 2021-22 it works out now at 1 officer per 499 people, WAY lower than every other jurisdiction. Take into account enforced and mandatory leave, injuries and illness, the shift patterns where they may work 6 out of 10 days then reality is much lower. And many sworn officers are not serving their role in front line duties. If you are going to throw a statistic out there Christine, please try and put some context around it.

Canberra is the safest capital city in Australia and has the lowest crime rates. Growing up in Canberra it is something I am proud of. Maybe you should stop being so selective in your commentary Tom McLuckie!

William Newby8:21 am 16 Dec 22

If only the Labor/Greens put as much priority on enforcing crime and keeping us all safe!
Instead they choose to focus on themes such as allowing people to freely carry more than enough drugs for personal consumption.
We already are Australias drug capital, of course this will lead to more drug related road deaths.

Scott Anthony12:02 am 16 Dec 22

Blind Freddy knows that a soft on drugs policy encouraged MORE drug use, more criminal activity, more drug violence (even murder) and more road fatalities…. its not a health issue, its a criminal issue… The ‘war on drugs’ is what keeps these fatalities under some degree of control… removing these laws just makes it worse…. as humans we should be smart enough to know this but the ‘super educated’ university fools think they know better from their rarefied air of their crystal towers…. here in the real world, people know better..

Capital Retro5:53 pm 15 Dec 22

Random drug testing of all ACT politicians should now apply and those found with drugs should be expelled permanently.

If power going to their heads is a drug, then that will be all of them

These drug driving laws really are ridiculous.

They rely solely on tests that USYD have proven to be ineffective and give police zero disgression to evaluate someones level of impairment. Not to mention they cost $40 a pop, are a massive inconvenience to drivers (due to the 10 minute test time) and waste the time of police where they could be doing important work.

Given the lack of efficacy of these tests, it seems they are more about stripping away the right to move freely from people who use drugs recreationally, as shown in this lovely piece of corny media produced by AFP:


Can we stick to catching actual criminals please?


Tom McLuckie6:24 pm 15 Dec 22

A drugged and drunk driver who kills someone is a criminal. Or is that just an accident?

I would argue that those who drive under the influence are real criminals, and their suppliers are even worse. Maybe offer incentives to “dob in a dealer” and see how long before Cracky McGee seeks out his $500.

Well there are drug drivers and drunk drivers. Yes they are criminals but how do governments tackle these issues without them becoming wicked problems. People spend their lives researching, investigating and tackling wicked problems. Can’t say I’m familiar with Cracky McGee though or his $500. Call me old fashioned!

Obviously they are both crimes, but the issue is around how we prove whether substances were the causal factor. There are two issues here – drugs and alchohol. I’ll start with the easy one first, which is alchol.

Killing someone while driving below the legal BAC limit is not drink driving and may be considered an accident, assuming no other negligence or crime occured. This is because we have undertaken extensive research into the impact of alcohol on driving ability and established a threshold BAC, which if exceeded, alcohol impairment increases the risk beyond a point where it can be concluded to be the causal factor. If you exceed this limit and ‘drink drive’ then kill someone, then that is a crime. It is black and white, and the distinction is based entirely on measuring impairment.

This level of testing accuracy and clear definition of imapirment are not present in how drug driving is currently defined. Any trace of a prescribed drug in somebodys system constitutes the crime of drug driving with no requirement for genuine proof to confirm drugs were the causal factor. You may take the view that this is fair because drugs are illegal, but legality of substance is entirely irrelevant in determing whether drugs caused the accident. A robust legal system must be able to deal with these issues separately.

I will state now that I am 100% in favour of an impairment based roadside drug test, just like I am in favour of impairment based roadside alcohol testing. I don’t think anyone should opperate a vehicle while intoxicated. But given over 250,000 Australian’s now hold cannabis prescriptions and we are clearly moving away from the war on drugs, there is an immediate need to develop and enforce limits on popular recreational drugs. The current approach falls drastically short of meeting this mark and risks criminalising otherwise decent people whose vice just so happens to be illegal or in a legal grey area.

Tom McLuckie4:43 pm 16 Dec 22

jack D – are you quoting or are you Michael Pettersson as that is exactly what he said yesterday. So the man who pushed for decriminalising drugs BEFORE we have the rehab facilities in place admits that death due to dangerous drug and alcohol driving causing death and grevious injuries that we have a wicked problem to deal with. cart before the horse maybe?

Both the drunk and the drugged driver would be considered criminals, but only one would receive the punishment as a result of a fair assessment.

The drunk driver would be found guilty based on blowing a BAC that exceeds a threshold level that was defined through rigorous science examining the impact of alchol on driving ability.

The drugged driver would be found guilty based on a test that merely detects the presence of a drug. It is a defacto punnishment for taking drugs, not proof that drugs were the causal factor. Hence why the law is unjust and should be revoked until robust impairment thresholds are established and testing equipment is developed to test impairment.

I am strongly in favour of impairment based drug driving, just as I am in favour of impairment based drink driving. What I am not in favour of is punitive laws that indirectly penalise an activity by falsely linking it to a crime.

As for the argument that ‘any level of drugs in your system causes accidents’, it is worth remembering that alcohol is a drug, so if you do take this line of argument then you really should be advocating for any level of BAC being illegal too.

Well Tom McLuckie I could possibly get on board with your crusade if you weren’t so hell bent on misrepresenting government policy and drug law reform. You are juat becoming so tedious!

Yep – let’s decriminalise drugs 😳

Decriminalisation is fine, but the ACT govt needs to enfore driving rules around them. The issue is that it costs too much to run RDT’s, but it is 100% what is needed. Rules without enforcement is worthless.

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