Speech to the 2nd International Symposium on Drugs and Driving

  • Michael Woodhouse

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to join you this morning for the opening of what is the most significant drug driving event to be held in New Zealand.

This is a problem that the Government takes very seriously, so it's great to see such a wide range of experts from around the world gathering to share ideas about how we can reduce the risk to public safety.

I would like to acknowledge New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell and the co-hosts of this symposium, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

I acknowledge, too, the symposium sponsors, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, the Ministry of Transport and ACC.

These three agencies are important partners of New Zealand Police, and their support for the symposium underlines the importance of cross-agency and cross-sector cooperation in this area.

In New Zealand, alcohol and drug impaired driving contributes to about a third of all road deaths every year. We don't know as much about the extent of drugged driving as we do about drink driving, but research undertaken by ESR of drivers killed in crashes between 2004 and 2009 showed that:

48 percent had used alcohol and/or drugs;
30 percent had used cannabis with or without alcohol or other drugs;
18 percent had used alcohol with another drug or drugs; and
14 percent had used drugs other than alcohol or cannabis.

So, clearly drugged driving poses a significant risk to public safety.

The New Zealand Government's position is that drugged driving is treated as a road safety issue – that is, it's about impaired drivers, rather than a drug-control issue relating to the use of illicit substances. However, as you know, this is a complex area as the presence of drugs in a driver's system isn't necessarily evidence of impairment.

In 2009, the Government introduced the new offence of "driving while impaired and with evidence in the bloodstream of a qualifying drug". This was accompanied by the introduction of compulsory roadside impairment tests for drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs.

As of 31 August this year, 1309 compulsory impairment tests had been undertaken, with 89 percent of the subsequent blood samples for those who failed testing positive. This is a high level of positive results, which indicates that Police have robust training and impairment testing in place and that officers’ judgements of behavioural impairment are very sound.

As a result, they are successfully identifying those who are driving under the influence of drugs while not significantly over-referring unimpaired drivers for invasive and unnecessary blood tests.

New Zealand Police is constantly searching for ways to improve its drug driving detection and enforcement, and it has been looking at Australia's mixed enforcement model. This incorporates both roadside compulsory impairment tests and random roadside drug tests and a multi-agency delegation, including Police, has been reviewing the system in place in Victoria.

The Safer Journeys crash prevention strategy also aims to move New Zealand towards a robust, cost effective approach to random roadside drug screening and testing as soon as that is practicable and justified.

I believe it is important that we continue to explore the best options to further reduce the incidence of drug impaired driving.

Police and its partner road safety agencies also recognise the importance of education in changing dangerous driver behaviour and attitudes. This is certainly something that needs to be done in terms of drug driving, with Drug Foundation research finding that 58 percent of people who drive under the influence of cannabis think it makes no difference to their driving ability.

Changing incorrect and dangerous perceptions such as that will be crucial in the effort to prevent and reduce the risks from drug driving, and the New Zealand Transport Agency has been doing a lot of good work in that area in recent years.

This includes a long-term behavioural change advertising campaign that highlights the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs.

This is presently focused on those who use cannabis - the second most common substance found in deceased drivers after alcohol - and has included the innovative use of social media to reach its target audience.

We know from experience in New Zealand that it is possible to change dangerous driver behaviour and attitudes and that it is possible to achieve that change relatively quickly.

This can be done through a mix of legislation, enforcement and education, and the stand out example of this is in the area of youth drink driving. Youth drink drive charges have plummeted since the Government introduced a zero alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20 in August 2011.

Under this regime, drivers who have more than 150 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath are prosecuted in the normal way, while those who have levels of alcohol in the system below 150 are issued with infringement notices and licence demerit points.

In the three years since this change was introduced, prosecutions for drink drivers aged under 20 have dropped by 50.6 percent compared to the three years before the change.

It is important to note that not all of this will be attributable solely to the new limits. The driving age was also raised from 15 to 16 and there has been a 32 percent decrease in adult drink drive convictions during the same period. However, clearly the new limit coupled with changing attitudes and education programmes is having an impact. Even more importantly, crash causalities in this age group have also reduced.

We now have a generation of drivers coming through who have only ever been licensed under a zero alcohol regime, and whose formative driving years have been marked by the knowledge that even one drink is one too many.

This has seen a positive behavioural change that we hope will continue once they are past the age of 20.

That should be reinforced by the lowering of the alcohol limits for adults, which takes effect on December 1 and which will introduce instant fines and demerit points for those caught with between 50 and 79 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath.

That is just a quick overview of some of the areas that the Government has been working in to combat drug driving.

We recognise the importance of cross-agency and cross-sector cooperation in this area, and that's why gatherings such as this are so important.

I wish you all the very best for the next two days and look forward to hearing what comes out of your discussions.