Drug driving rates soar after COVID lockdowns
Drugged up drivers are now being nabbed behind the wheel at rates far higher than drink drivers with new revelations that motorists affected by narcotics were involved in almost a quarter of all fatalities on NSW roads last year.
And the biggest menace on our roads are meth users - ice and speed junkies - accounting for 60 per cent of illicit drug drivers.
New figures uncovered by Upper House One Nation MP Rod Roberts and a Daily Telegraph FOI reveal the full extent of the danger posed by addled and intoxicated drivers as the Department of Transport also revealed that drug drivers were actually involved in 24 per cent of all fatalities on NSW roads in 2019.
An incredible one in 14 NSW drivers -- or 7.2 per cent of 172,871 drivers subjected to a roadside mobile drug test - were positive for either methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine or THC (cannabis).
That compares with the traditional alcohol RBT testing program, which checked 4.6 million motorists in the 12 months to June 2020 and found just one in 310, or just 0.3 per cent over the limit.
NSW Police suspended roadside testing in mid-March for several months during the height of COVID fears - but when they resumed testing on June 2 they caught more drug-taking drivers than ever before.
In total, 785 drivers were charged during June with drug driving - 20 more than for the same month the year before.
All up, more than 7000 motorists were found with ice in their system, 6257 had cannabis, 1814 had cocaine and 882 were found with ecstasy.
"There's a glaring problem on our roads and the greater problem basically is clearly drug driving, not drunk driving," says Mr Roberts, a former detective sergeant with the NSW Police Force.
"We're not advocating for stopping random alcohol testing at all - but we're just saying that the government needs to focus more clearly on drugs.
"And the frightening and scary fact is that so much of it is ice."
He said it has been argued drug driving tests are only picking up "people smoking a little bit of dope", but "the statistics show otherwise".
"I encourage the government to ramp up drug testing - we really need more resources for this," he said.
Recent drug driving tragedies include disqualified driver Rabih Abdulrahman running a red light after taking a "toxic" near fatal level of ice before crashing into a 12-year-old Hurstville Primary schoolboy last year and killing him.
Other cases include the four children who died at Oatlands earlier this year with the driver indicating he will plead guilty to manslaughter charges after allegedly being high on cocaine, MDMA and alcohol and the death of a teen in March on the Central Coast in a car accident, where the 18-year-old driver faces charges including driving under the influence of drugs.
Mr Roberts points out that under strict construction laws for Commonwealth funded projects, workers are required to be tested for drugs - including opiates, as well as legal benzodiazepines and tranquillisers such as Valium.
"I'm concerned opioid based products, including heroin, aren't being tested at the moment," he said.
"Even the prescription medicines can considerably affect the reaction skills of the driver."
He points to the tragic case of Falkholt family, four of whom died on the south coast in Christmas 2017 after a man returning from a methadone clinic veered into them.
"That was such a tragic case, and we call on the government to get serious about this problem," Mr Roberts said.
"The figures show there is an issue here, it is of concern to us all."
Under the Mobile Drug Testing program, motorists are given a saliva test, with the results sent away to NSW Health Pathology's forensic labs if traces of illicit drugs are found.
Earlier this year, a police traffic blitz on the NSW south coast of 298 random drivers found 46 people testing positive for a prohibited drug and 17 drivers with drugs in their cars.
Ice can cause more aggressive and risk-taking driving says Swinburne Centre for Human Psychopharmacology's Professor Con Stough.
"Methamphetamine can also more erratic and risk-taking driving which leads to more speeding, less caution and safe driving overall, more aggressive driving, more weaving and feelings of over confidence," he said.
Drug detection rates might be over-estimated if the roadside tests are held near concerts and parties, he said, but could also reflect the "changing demographics in terms of alcohol and drug use in younger generation of drivers".
The State Government aims to run 200,000 roadside drug tests this year, following a steep rise in drug-related fatalities in recent years, including the death of 83 people last year.
"In 2019, 81 drivers and riders who had the presence of an illicit drug in their system were involved in 79 fatal crashes, resulting in 83 deaths - 24 per cent of all fatalities on NSW roads," a Department of Transport spokesman said.
Police Minister David Elliott said the detection rates were "clear evidence that the program is effective" and people need to get the message that "driving under the influence of drugs is dangerous to you and everyone else on the road"."
Originally published as Drug driving rates soar after COVID lockdowns