Police will have to continue to ping impaired drivers with the current tests after roadside saliva tests were canned. Photo / NZME
Northland road safety advocates have been left frustrated and disheartened by news an oral tool for random roadside drug testing will no longer make it to our shores as planned.
The rollback is especially painful
for Northland as data shows the region’s road users are the most at risk nationally of death or serious injury due to drink or drug driving.
Saliva testing was due to begin on March 11 this year but has been indefinitely postponed as the device needed doesn’t exist.
The backwards step wields a blow to the Government’s 2040 Road to Zero strategy as random roadside drug testing was considered a key component to reducing road deaths and injuries by 40 per cent.
However, the roadside tests weren’t without debate. Some medical professionals had previously told lawmakers that oral tests failed to gauge impairment levels and could turn up false negatives or positives.
But experts and advocates maintained they were still worth pursuing to help save lives.
RoadSafe Northland road safety coordinator Ashley Johnston said the backwards step was “embarrassing” as the tool had been used in Australia and some European countries for years.
“But we’re saying it can’t be done.
“It’s so disappointing and disheartening for everyone. Not just people in road safety but for whole communities,” she said.
Johnston said saliva testing would be a welcome tool in Northland.
Senior Constable Warren Bunn, of the police Serious Crash Unit, said of the 34 crashes that killed 38 people last year, 14 involved drugs.
Bunn said March was too early to comment on the presence of drugs in this year’s eight fatal crashes as tests take longer to return than for alcohol.
Waka Kotahi’s Communities at Risk Register 2022 show when population and time travelled are taken into account road users in the Far North and Kaipara are the second and third most at risk of death or serious injury due to alcohol and drugs and Northland is the region most at risk nationally.
Despite its small population, the only places with more drug and alcohol-related fatal and serious crashes than the Far North are parts of Auckland and Christchurch.
Johnston felt for police on the frontline of reducing the road toll but without the tools needed to achieve better outcomes.
As the Land Transport (Drug Driving) Amendment Act comes into effect on March 11 bringing new offences and infringements officers will still be relying on the compulsory impairment test (CIT).
The test involves an assessment of a person’s eyes for pupil size, reaction to light, and eye movement; a walk-and-turn assessment and a one-leg stand.
If a driver is deemed impaired, a blood test will follow.
Johnston called CIT “archaic” and time-consuming.
“It makes you question how serious are we about reducing deaths on our roads.”
Northland road policing manager acting Inspector Haydn Korach said the lack of saliva testing doesn’t mean officers stop enforcing drug and driving laws.
“We will continue to weed out the people under the influence of drugs.”
Korach acknowledged the difficulties Northland’s far-flung geography posed to the task but said police target the most at-risk areas, mainly being rural 80km/h-plus roads.
“The most important message is if you do use drugs and drive there’s a very real risk you will get caught and will lose your license.”
That is a consequence that can hamstring Northlanders due to long distances and limited public transport.
Korach reminded people that police cannot tackle the road toll alone.
“It’s also up to communities and families to stop people from making these decisions – it could save families a whole lot of grief.”
Automobile Association (AA) road safety spokesman Dylan Thomsen said the AA is calling on the Government to urgently come up with a different way to introduce a roadside drug testing approach that will allow substantial numbers of drivers to be tested and get the people currently driving high to fear that they could get caught”.