The proposed drug-driving law is to be included in the Government’s Crime and Courts Bill.
Driving under the influence of drugs is currently not an offence, unless police can prove the substances impaired the driver’s judgement or that another law was broken.
The new law will effectively bring drug-driving into line with drink-driving and make it an automatic offence to have levels of certain drugs in the bloodstream.
Following a long-running campaign for a change in the law, police officers will be issued with hand-held devices – similar to breathalysers – to test the level of drugs in the body at the roadside by the end of the year.
The penalty for the new offence will be a maximum of six months jail, a fine of up to £5,000 and an automatic driving ban of at least 12 months, which is similar to the current punishment for drink-drivers.
Road Safety Minister Mike Penning said: ‘Drug drivers are a deadly menace – they must be stopped and that is exactly what I intend to do.
‘The new offence sends out a clear message that if you drive whilst under the influence of drugs you will not get away with it. This measure will help to rid our roads of the irresponsible minority who risk the lives of innocent motorists and pedestrians.’
An independent review of drink and drug driving law in 2010 recommended that a new specified limit offence should be developed. The exact drugs covered by the offence and the specified limits for each will be determined following advice from an expert panel and a public consultation.
The plan to introduce the legislation in the new session of Parliament was announced within days of the IAM (InstituteofAdvanced Motorists) revealing that one in 10 young male drivers had driven under the influence of cannabis.
Around 750,000 people have driven under the influence of cannabis and 370,000 have driven under the influence of class A drugs, claimed the organisation.
Despite the Government’s intention to equip police forces with roadside drugalysers, the IAM says it is yet to be proven that limits can be set for illegal substances above which a driver is deemed to be unfit to drive.
The IAM believes that the proven ability of impairment testing, currently undertaken at the roadside by police officers, should not be forgotten in any rush to provide a technological solution to the drug driving issue.
Unless drugalysers can provide proof of impairment in situations where a cocktail of drugs and alcohol may have been taken, their main role will be as detectors of the presence of illegal substances. This may in itself be a useful function but not necessarily a road safety one, says the IAM.
IAM chief executive Simon Best said: ‘Any new equipment that will allow police to make quick and accurate decisions at the roadside or at the police station on drivers who are impaired by drugs is great. In this way traffic officers can get back out onto the frontline of roads policing, where their impact is highest.
‘But the introduction of a drugalyser type test, needs to be backed up by some measure of impairment. Without this, the test could simply catch those people who have used drugs at some point, but are not necessarily still impaired by them.
‘Impairment as the key factor is also essential in tackling drivers who may have used over the counter or prescription drugs, which while legal, can have an equal impact on driving ability as illegal ones.’
Ellen Booth, senior campaigns officer at road safety charity Brake, said: ‘This is an incredibly important step forwards in tacking drug driving which Brake welcomes wholeheartedly.
‘Creating a new offence as well as approving roadside drug screening devices by the end of 2012, will make an enormous difference in preventing drug-driving crashes, and also ensuring justice for families whose lives are turned upside down by selfish drug drivers.’