Pubdate: Sun, 13 Aug 2000
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd
Contact:  PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)171-782 5046
Author: Jonathon Carr-Brown


TAKING the high road may not be so dangerous after all. Ministers are set 
to be embarrassed by government-funded research which shows that driving 
under the influence of drugs makes motorists more cautious and has a 
limited impact on their risk of crashing.

In the study, conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory, grade A 
cannabis specially imported from America was given to 15 regular users. The 
doped-up drivers were then put through four weeks of tests on driving 
simulators to gauge reaction times and awareness.

Regular smokers were used because previous tests in America using 
first-timers resulted in the volunteers falling over and feeling ill. The 
laboratory found its guinea pigs through what it described as a 
"snowballing technique" - one known user was asked to find another after 
being promised anonymity and exemption from prosecution agreed with the 
Home Office.

Instead of proving that drug-taking while driving increased the risk of 
accidents, researchers found that the mellowing effects of cannabis made 
drivers more cautious and so less likely to drive dangerously.

Although the cannabis affected reaction time in regular users, its effects 
appear to be substantially less dangerous than fatigue or drinking. 
Research by the Australian Drugs Foundation found that cannabis was the 
only drug tested that decreased the relative risk of having an accident.

The findings will embarrass ministers at the Department of the Environment, 
Transport and the Regions (DETR) who commissioned the study after pressure 
from motoring organisations and anti-drug campaigners. Lord Whitty, the 
transport minister, will receive the report later this month.

Last week police revealed details of new drug-driving tests to be 
administered by the roadside, which were received with some amusement. They 
require suspected drug-drivers to stand on one leg, lean back and touch 
their nose with their eyes closed, and to count to 30 silently with their 
eyes shut. This is apparently difficult for those on a drug trip.

The advertising company McCann-Erickson has already prepared a television 
campaign using Pulp's song Sorted for Es and Whizz, the slogan "Never drive 
on drugs" and the pay-off line "then you come down".

However, if the findings are less than frightening on the effects of 
marijuana, they may convince ministers to put more money into raising 
driver awareness of fatigue. Tiredness is now blamed for causing 10% of all 
fatal accidents, compared with 6% for alcohol and 3% for drugs.

A low-key radio campaign will be launched tomorrow warning drivers to take 

The report's surprising conclusions will not sway organisations such as the 
RAC, which believes there is incontrovertible evidence that drug-driving is 
a growing menace. DETR statistics published in January showed a six-fold 
increase in the number of people found to be driving with drugs in their 
system after fatal road accidents. The figure jumped from 3% in 1989 to 18%.

Dr Rob Tunbridge, the report's author, refused to reveal his findings 
before they were published but said: "If you were to ask me to rank them in 
order of priority, fatigue is the worst killer, followed by alcohol, and 
drugs follow way behind in third."

Tunbridge admitted that the effect of drugs differed with the individual, 
the amount taken, the environment they were taken in and the point at which 
you tested reactions.

Cocaine users are known to be alert drivers when they first take the drug, 
but then they have a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. The particular 
problem with cannabis is that it stays in a person's system for up to 30 
hours but its effects wear off within a few hours.
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