NSW adds cocaine to driver drug testing

New South Wales is the first Australian state to test drivers for cocaine use.

All Australian states now have random driver drug testing, similar to random breath testing for alcohol. But the existing kits in all states test only THC (Cannabis), methamphetamine (speed and ice) and MDMA (ecstasy). Cocaine, a drug widely associated with more affluent users, has not previously been tested.

This has led to accusations that drug testing unfairly targeted lower socio-economic groups. But the technology for effectively testing for cocaine has only recently become available. NSW Police conducted a major in what the Daily Telegraph referred to as ‘Sydney’s coked up Eastern Suburbs’ in September last year. Now cocaine testing will be formally introduced across the state.

Random drug testing is the latest tool in the continuing fight to reduce the road toll. In 2017, 392 people were killed on NSW roads. The Christmas period was extremely bad, with a number of high-profile fatalities. The toll has risen annually since the lowest ever year, 2014, when 307 people died. But it is still much lower than the peak year of 1978, when 1384 people lost their lives.

Road deaths in NSW and across Australia have declined sharply in the last 40 years, because of a range of factors including compulsory seatbelts, better roads, safer cars, random breath testing for alcohol, and stronger enforcement mechanisms such as speed cameras.

By any measure, Australia has been very successful in reducing its road toll. The decline in absolute numbers is notable, and even more impressive is the reduction in fatalities per kilometre travelled. There are many more vehicles on Australian roads than there were 40 years ago. That metric is down by an extraordinary 80 percent.

But in NSW, as in other states, the road toll has stopped falling in recent years. Announcing the new cocaine tests, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it had become clear that more action was needed to boost road safety.

“Preliminary data shows that drug affected drivers were a major contributing factor in 36 fatal accidents in the first half of 2017, resulting in 42 deaths,” she said. “This summer has been a tragic time for too many on our roads.

“Many families and friends have been left with the heartache of losing loved ones while thousands will now live with lifelong injuries from crashes.”

Measures announced by the NSW Government on 15 January were:

  • Doubling the number of roadside drug tests from 100,000 a year to 200,000 a year by 2020.
  • Adding cocaine to the list of drugs subject to roadside testing.
  • Increasing maximum penalties for drug drivers to two years imprisonment, fines of $5500 or licence disqualification for up to five years.
  • Providing for appropriate restrictions on people who drive after using other drugs, in consultation with health experts.

“There are also prescription drugs that may significantly impair the performance of drivers,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“We need to ensure that drivers are not impaired and a risk to others on the road. We will be seeking advice from police and road safety and medical experts on the appropriate restrictions to balance the need of people taking medication and the safety of the broader community on the road.

“We know that we need to continue to be vigilant to ensure we keep our community safe on our roads. That includes ongoing assessment about the most appropriate restrictions for repeat driving offenders.”

Currently, drivers caught driving under the influence of drugs are subject to lower maximum penalties than the highest range drink drivers. The NSW Government will be changing this so that the maximum penalties for driving under the influence of drugs are consistent with the highest range drink driving offences.

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