HL Deb 28 February 1996 vol 569 cc1452-4

3.7 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering the introduction of tests for drugs for drivers of motor vehicles on similar lines to those now applying for alcohol.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, there are already powers to test drivers for drugs but we have no current plans to introduce roadside testing. Research is being commissioned to help to assess the level of drug use among road accident fatalities in Great Britain. That will assist us in determining whether action may be necessary.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply from my noble friend. Can he confirm that police and doctors consider that certain drugs do dangerously affect driving? When particular drugs are prescribed medically, doctors normally tell the patients not to drive. But in any future scheme, in cases of harmless drug medication, should doctors supply certificates which would explain traces found upon roadside testing? Is my noble friend aware that the RAC has today launched a nationwide campaign on the scale and dangers of drugs and driving?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, since 1977 the legislation has ensured that medicines which can affect drivers adversely carry warnings. It is also best practice on the part of the medical profession to warn patients of the effects of prescribed medicines. However, prescribed drugs can be misused or patients fail to exercise sufficient care. It is every individual's responsibility to ensure that they are fit to drive. If they then drive while unfit through drugs, they have committed an offence. It is for the courts to consider whether there are other factors which should be taken into account in each individual case.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government aware that tiredness is also a cause of problems with drivers? Will they take steps to prevent motorway service areas levying parking charges on those who might feel drowsy and stop to have a little kip before proceeding on their journey?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I am not aware of service stations levying charges. The noble Lord nods. I learn something new every day. I have travelled up and down the country on many occasions. When I am tired, I pull into a service station and have something to drink—soft, of course—and something to eat.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is any research being done in relation to roadside kits so that people on illegal drugs can receive blood and urine tests without having to go to a station?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, no equipment is presently available that can test for drugs in the same way as roadside breathalysers. Some kits exist to detect the presence of certain illicit drugs on a person; for example, if someone has handled an illicit drug. However, I understand that at present there is no equipment that can be used to test whether someone is under the influence of a drug.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1994 678,500 breath tests were carried out, of which 14 per cent. were found to be positive? Is he further aware that, in the same period, 1,000 drugs tests were carried out following negative breath tests and Department of Transport figures indicate that 90 per cent. proved positive? Having regard to the fact that there can be no doubt as to the lethal quality of some of those drugs, is there not a case for an urgent and rapid inquiry to be undertaken by either the Department of Transport or the Home Office in order to ensure that proper cognisance is taken of the advice given by the police and many others?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I was not aware of all the statistics that the noble Lord gave. Research is being instigated between the Department of Transport, the Home Office, the Coroners' Society and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is to establish systematically the instance of drug use among fatal road casualties in Great Britain. It relates not just to illicit drugs, but also takes into account those that are prescribed and those available over the counter which may affect the ability of a driver to drive safely. It is a three-year research programme. It will report on a regular basis, and if research brought to our attention implies the need for some legislation, we will take action.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while at the present stage of knowledge it may not be possible to conduct roadside tests for the presence of illicit drugs in the body of a driver, do the police have the power to subject blood samples taken in the course of testing for alcohol to laboratory tests, off-line, so that the presence of illicit drugs could later be established and presented as evidence in court when the question of a person's impairment through the use of drugs may arise?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, Section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 empowers a constable to arrest a person if he has reasonable cause to suspect that that person has been driving or has been in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle when unfit through drugs. Section 7 of that Act empowers a constable to require the suspect to provide a specimen for laboratory analysis.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just illicit drugs that cause such problems; ordinary drugs can cause drowsiness? The police say that that is very difficult to check. Will the Minister refer this very serious matter to the Secretary of State for consideration?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. This area is also being examined in relation to the research that will be carried out, starting on 1st July. That will look into various types of drug: alcohol; amphetamines; and methyl-amphetamines, which I am told include ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine, opiates, methadone, LSD, benzodiazepines and tricyclic anti-depressants.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, might one of the problems in roadside testing be that it is not necessarily so easy to detect the difference between various sorts of drugs in chemical residues in the body as it is with alcohol? If so, are the Government conducting or funding any research into that approach; in other words, developing better equipment to enable roadside testing to take place?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite correct. There is a great problem with this subject because of the wide range of drugs that can affect drivers and the matter of degree of substance in the bloodstream or urine. I believe that investigation into this area is currently being carried out.