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Driving and drugs

Most people are aware that it is a criminal offence to drive under the influence of drugs.

Specifically, the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended) provides that:

[A] person who, when driving or attempting to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs is guilty of an offence.

The penalties for drug driving are the same as those for drink driving: (i) a fine of up to £5,000; (ii) up to 6 months’ imprisonment; and (iii) a mandatory driving ban of at least one year.

What counts as a drug?

For purposes of the drug driving offence, “drugs” is defined very broadly – in effect, as any intoxicant other than alcohol. It includes not only illegal drugs, but also prescription medicines and even over-the-counter drugs and medicines.


Unlike drink driving, drug driving has no legally mandated objective standards for impairment. In other words, for drink driving, it is an offence for a person to drive with more than a certain amount of alcohol in his bloodstream (i.e., 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood). With a blood alcohol concentration beyond that level, he is deemed to be impaired.

By contrast, with drug driving, the prosecution needs to prove that the driver was impaired by the drugs in his system (as was the case with drink driving before objective standards were introduced in the 1960s).

In a drug driving case, there will ordinarily be two types of evidence of impairment. First, the prosecution is likely to present evidence of scientific tests showing the presence of drugs in the defendant’s blood or urine. Second, there will be subjective evidence of the defendant’s behaviour and/or appearance – which will likely include the result of a field impairment test (FIT) carried out by the police officer who stopped the defendant.

Field Impairment Test

The Field Impairment Test (FIT) is an examination that a police constable carries out, either at the roadside when a driver is stopped, or at the police station. The elements of the FIT test are prescribed by statutory instrument, and include a visual examination of the driver’s eyes (especially the pupils) and a series of physical tasks (checking balance, co-ordination, etc.). The FIT test may only be administered by a police constable who is authorised to give such tests.

The police are not required to carry out a FIT test in order to determine that a driver is impaired. The FIT test will, however, provide additional evidence of impairment if a police officer carries it out and determines that test indicates that the driver is impaired.

If a driver refuses to take a test, he will commit an additional offence.

Since it will frequently be difficult for a police constable to determine whether a driver’s apparent impairment is due to drugs or alcohol (or both) it is likely that the police will also administer a breath test to any driver who is stopped on suspicion of drug driving.

North Review -- June 2010

In June 2010, the Department for Transport published Sir Peter North’s report on drink and drug driving law in the United Kingdom. That report makes a number of recommendations relating to drug driving laws and their enforcement. In particular, the report recommends that the government take steps to develop an approved preliminary testing device for certain types of drugs and carry out research to determine what levels of such drugs in a driver’s blood or urine should be deemed to be impairing. The report also recommends that more police constables be trained to carry out FIT tests.

Although these are only recommendations, the report raises some significant concerns about the extent of drug driving in the UK and its consequences.

** Getting help with a drug driving charge **

If you are cautioned or charged with drug driving and/or refusal to cooperate in undergoing a drug test, you will need a solicitor immediately. Contact Law is a solicitor-client matching service that can help you find an appropriate solicitor quickly for free.

This content is subject to Crown Copyright

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