Roadside Drug Tests, deterrent or detriment?

In the past five years New South Wales Police have tripled the number of road side drug tests they conduct in the hopes to protect the community from drug-driving related deaths. Police have announced that from 2021 onwards, they hope to administer at least 20,000 tests per year. However, recent studies, including one from the University of Sydney, have shown that the current road side drug testing model is significantly ineffective when it comes to accurately determining whether someone is inhibited by an illicit substance.

Unlike road side breath testing which gives you a clear read out of the level of intoxication, road side drug tests can only show the presence of an illicit drug. They cannot provide and indication as to the level of impairment of the driver. This means that the test can potentially give a positive reading to both someone smoked cannabis on Friday night and then drove to work on Monday morning, who is unlikely to still be impaired, and give the same reading for someone who smoked cannabis an hour ago then drove. Both people in these scenarios would lose their license and be required to attend court for driving under the influence of a prohibited substance regardless of when they consumed the substance, in what quantity, how long ago, or whether they were still inhibited by their consumption.

The question then becomes: is it effective to administer tests that are somewhat unreliable in order to prevent drug driving? There isn’t enough information about how long an illicit drug can remain in someone’s system, and similar to alcohol, each person absorbs substances at different rates. This can vary according to a range of factors.

The NSW Government’s Centre for Road Safety outlines that cannabis can be detected up to 12 hours after use, however some people have failed a test 9 to 12 days after use. One Sydney Magistrate David Heilpern, indicated that the issues and inconsistencies in laws surrounding road side drug testing were a contributing factor to his decision to retire at age 58. He noted the difficulty and guilt he experienced when having to take away someone’s license even though, most of the people brought before the court under these charges had not been taking the drug long term and had never engaged with the law before.

At present, Australia is the only country to carry out road side drug tests of this nature. Other countries such as New Zealand, England and Canada have found that this kind of testing is ineffective, expensive and a waste of court resources. Although it is necessary to make every effort to reduce any potentially fatal road accidents, it seems that until the technology surrounding road side drug testing is improved, it may be necessary for the testing to be dialled back.