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Roadside drug testing critical to road safety

Roadside drug testing critical to road safety

Road Transport Forum News

 August 2019    RTF News

Most New Zealanders are quite shocked to learn that over the last two years there have been more road deaths involving drugs than there have been as a result of excess alcohol.

In 2017 and 2018, 159 people died on our roads in accidents where drugs were a factor – as opposed to 140 in accidents involving excess alcohol.

The NZ Transport Agency and the Police have quite rightly bombarded us with anti-drink driving advertising for decades now and we're all well aware of just how dangerous it is to be on the road with people who have been drinking.

Far fewer people consider the growing proportion of road users who are driving under the influence of drugs, be they recreational and illegal substances or prescription medication.

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Most New Zealanders are quite shocked to learn that over the last two years there have been more road deaths involving drugs than there have been as a result of excess alcohol.
In 2017 and 2018, 159 people died on our roads in accidents where drugs were a factor – as opposed to 140 in accidents involving excess alcohol.
The NZ Transport Agency and the Police have quite rightly bombarded us with anti-drink driving advertising for decades now and we're all well aware of just how dangerous it is to be on the road with people who have been drinking.
Far fewer people consider the growing proportion of road users who are driving under the influence of drugs, be they recreational and illegal substances or prescription medication.
The concerning thing is that the road death statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, as drug testing is currently extremely limited and there are no statistics for drug-related accidents that result in serious injury or harm.
The Road Transport Forum has always been a staunch advocate for comprehensive roadside testing for drug impairment, whether that's the result of recreational drug use or prescription pharmaceuticals.
We have continued to advocate for more sophisticated drug wipes or saliva testing to be used over the current Compulsory Impairment Test, which we see as a rather blunt and therefore under-utilised instrument.
The good news is that the issue of roadside drug testing is back on the table, with the Government giving consideration to improving testing and enforcement.
RTF has submitted on the discussion document, Enhanced Drug Impaired Driver Testing, on behalf of the industry. However, I fear that – despite being on the right side of all the evidence – we may still not get the result we're looking for.
The timing of the process is somewhat troubling. On the one hand the instances of drugs contributing to road deaths is increasing and the Government has made no secret of its desire to improve road safety….
Yet, on the other, they are considering a significant liberalisation of the laws around the use and possession of cannabis. Ministers appear to be ignoring this obvious double-standard, as both initiatives are in their very early stages. However, at some point, they will be forced to confront this problem.
The Vision Zero road safety programme, which the Government wishes to uplift from Sweden, would indicate that a hard-line needs to be taken on drug use. The Swedes famously have a zero-tolerance approach to drugs right through their justice system – including in transport. Yet our Government seems happy to ignore that fact and is attempting to have its cake and eat it too.
Unsurprisingly, the Government's discussion document drifts away from the core purpose of mitigating safety risks on our roads and focuses heavily on the costs and inconvenience of a future expansion of drug testing.
The inconvenience of time spent testing is mentioned 12 times and the inconvenience of cost and "pressure" on the system appears a further 12 times in the document.
This gives the consultation a very lopsided feel and, as RTF has submitted, does not appropriately emphasise the potential of drug testing as a key contributor to road safety.
If the Government is as committed to road safety and reducing deaths on our roads as it says it is then surely the small amount of time (2-5 minutes) spent testing a suspected drug-impaired driver is justified.
For our industry there is also an obvious and concerning inconsistency between what the law demands through the Health and Safety at Work Act and how drug impairment is treated, and the exposure that truck drivers face out there on the roading network from members of the public.
This creates problems for road transport companies who must do their best to manage the impairment risk in the industry…while this is in stark contrast to the current approach being taken to manage road safety by government agencies.
Truck drivers undergo extensive testing including pre-employment, random and post-accident drug testing. However, they can have no confidence that those they're sharing the road with are not impaired by drugs – as there's currently no adequate roadside testing regime.
While it is unrealistic to expect members of the public to go through the same kind of thorough testing that truck drivers do, the increasing prevalence of drugs in road deaths does mean something has to change.
RTF does not believe NZ can rely on the Compulsory Impairment Test on its own to act as a sufficient deterrent. We fully support the institution of roadside drug testing, using sophisticated drug wipes and saliva testing as a tool for early detection of impaired drivers.
This must be part of the Government's overall aspiration to reduce the road toll and mitigate the risk on NZ roads.
Another aspect of road safety that has long been neglected by successive governments is the role of driver training and providing drivers with skills beyond the very basic core ability to drive a car and identify hazards.
I recently attended the RTANZ Region 4 and 5 seminar down in Twizel and was lucky enough to have a good chat with motor racing legend and Autosense ambassador Greg Murphy.
Greg is passionate about the need to improve the driving standards of NZers through more training. He describes Kiwi drivers as under-trained and over-confident and is extremely critical of the Government's Vision Zero strategy, especially if it doesn't mean the necessary emphasis will be placed on improving driving standards or the sorry state of our roads.
Murphy convincingly makes the point that a couple of hundred million dollars' investment in a comprehensive driver training regime – rolled out throughout NZ secondary schools – would have a major benefit in the reduction of accident rates. This small investment would generate a return on the investment many times over, especially considering the estimated $4.8billion in current social and economic costs of road accidents.
NZ First, to their credit, have done some work in this area. In fact, in their coalition agreement with Labour they state their goal of providing free driver training to all secondary students.
However, we have yet to see anything substantial come from this and I suspect the party will struggle to convince the rest of Cabinet of the merits of the investment required to properly roll it out nationwide.
To properly turn around our negative road safety statistics, Labour and the Greens must change their blinkered approach to the problem. They cannot rely purely on speed reductions and forcibly moving freight to rail. They must take a more holistic look at all the contributing factors, including those that may not be politically convenient to them.
Finally, don't forget that the RTF Conference is fast approaching. The full programme, registration details, accommodation and sponsorship packages are all available at www.rtfconference.co.nz. I look forward to seeing you there and discussing some of these issues in more detail.


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