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Risks of substance use behind the wheel

Public domain image (CC0)

Public domain image (CC0)

A new report has revealed the full scale of the use of illicit drugs and psychoactive medicines amongst drivers.

The report was conducted by the EU drugs agency, the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction (EMCDDA). The report coincides with an alarming appeal from a Belgian judge on the dangerous combination of drugs and driving.

Research project

The ‘state of the art’ review presents the results of the largest research project ever carried out in the EU on driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol and medicines, which ran between 2006 and 2011.

Around 30,000 people die in traffic accidents in the EU every year, with alcohol still the number one substance endangering lives on Europe’s roads, being responsible for about one quarter of road deaths.

For the first time using comparable data, the project drew a map of the drink and drug-driving problem across 13 European countries.

The test and its results

Over 50,000 car and van drivers were tested in random roadside surveys for traces of 25 substances, including illicit drugs, alcohol and medicines.

Alcohol was detected in 3.5 per cent of drivers, illicit drugs in 1.9 per cent and medicines in 1.4 per cent.

Mixtures of drugs or medicines were found in 0.39 per cent of those stopped and combinations of alcohol with drugs or medicines in 0.37 per cent. The roadside surveys revealed cannabis to be the most frequently detected illicit drug in drivers, followed by cocaine and amphetamines.

Across Europe, the prevalence of alcohol, cocaine, cannabis and combined substance use was found to be higher in southern and western regions.

Alcohol and drugs were found more often in male drivers, while medicines were identified mainly in middle-aged and older female drivers. Also examined in the study were data from nine countries on drivers seriously injured or killed in traffic accidents. In sharp contrast to the results of the roadside tests, between a quarter and a half of drivers involved in crashes in these countries (28 per cent to 53 per cent) tested positive for one or more psychoactive substance.

Spin-off of the project

According to Wolfgang Götz, EMCDDA director the project has given policymakers the best available scientific evidence on levels of drug and alcohol use in drivers and the responses available today to improve road safety in Europe. This project has set the standard for assessing drug driving in European countries in order to design more effective solutions in future.

Policy making

Three options commonly used by policymakers to address drink- and drug-driving are: ‘impairment’ (proof that the substance has impaired driving ability); ‘legal limit’ (‘over the limit’ being an offence) and ‘zero tolerance’ (any amount found being an offence). At present, 11 countries in Europe use the ‘impairment’ approach, while eight use the ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘legal limit’ approach. Nine countries combine these two approaches into a two-tier system, the option recommended by the project. Enforcing these laws, however, remains a challenge due to accuracy concerns regarding drug-testing procedures. None of the roadside oral fluid testing devices achieved the target value of 80 % sensitivity, specificity and accuracy for all the individual substances tested.

More information:

EMCDDA Thematic paper, ‘Driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol and medicines in Europe — findings from the DRUID project’. In support of the project’s legacy and in line with its remit to disseminate evidence-based information on drugs to a wide audience, the EMCDDA prepared this Thematic paper summary in collaboration with the DRUID project leaders.

Drug law offences in Europe: statistical data

DRUID project. Since the mid 1990s, several non-standardised studies have been carried out to determine the level of drug-driving on Europe’s roads. However due to different parameters the results were not comparable. DRUID aimed to estimate the size of the problems and possible countermeasures taking to account the various challenges of international comparability.

Road Safety evolution in the EU

EP library information:

Drugs and Driving: Detection and Deterrence / OECD : Driving while impaired by drugs – whether licit or illicit – has emerged as an important road safety issue. This report provides a state-of-the-art review of the role and impact of drugs in road accident risk. It reviews the legislation, deterrence and roadside detection practices in member countries as well as preventative measures to combat drug use while driving. It provides recommendations on strategies to adopt in addressing this issue, with a view to contributing to a safe system approach and saving further lives on the roads.

Drugs and Driving: New International Study

DRUID outcomes and risk communication to young drivers

About Geert Plas

Polyvalent information specialist at the European Parliament Library

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