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Drug Driving


Andrew Fraser

Canberra motorists are increasingly coming before the courts charged with drug-driving offences. The advent of new technology that allows increased numbers of police to find the presence of various drugs in drivers is the cause of higher rates of detection.

While the most common drug-driving charge (“driving with a prescribed drug in oral fluid or blood") appears in the Road Transport (Alcohol and Drugs) Act immediately after the most common drink-driving charge, there are significant differences between the two.

The major difference is that alcohol’s presence in a driver’s body is known to mean that the driver is impaired. Studies have shown this conclusively. It is the reason that the ACT has four levels of drink-driving, with each reflecting increasing penalties for increasing amounts of alcohol.

The same is not true of drug-driving. Despite the technological advances, drug testing shows only the presence of certain drugs in a driver’s system, not the level of those drugs nor if there was any impairment caused by them.

This means that someone who may have consumed, say, a small amount of cannabis, on the weekend can be picked up for drug-driving at some point late in the next week, something that could not happen to someone who had, say three schooners of beer and a bottle of wine at the weekend.

The person with the cannabis in his or her system, if a first offender, faces the same driving disqualification as someone who is before the court for a first-offence Level 4 (0.150 or more) drink-driving matter. That is, they both face automatic disqualification from driving for three years (reducible to six months if the driver can satisfy a court of unusual circumstances). The drink-driver faces a maximum fine of $2250 and/or nine months imprisonment. The drug-driver faces a maximum fine of $1500 with no prison component.

Studies have shown that a person is 10 times more likely to have a crash if they have a blood-alcohol reading in the lower half of Level 3 (0.08 to 0.150). There are no similar studies in relation to drug-driving.

Drug-driving is a strict-liability offence. This means that the police do not have to show that you were drug-affected for you to be convicted. They have only to show that you were driving, and that, when tested, you returned a positive result.

ACT laws were strengthened in late 2013 in relation to refusing to undertake an alcohol or drug screening test, reinforcing the power of police officers to direct a driver to remain at a location to undertake a screening test.

Police can require a driver to remain at the scene for a reasonable time, not exceeding 30 minutes, whilst a screening device is obtained. The risk of detection of both drug and drink-drivers increased markedly in 2014 when ACT Policing's road-safety operations team was doubled, with eight new police officers and three new vehicles.

The Police Minister directed that those new officers target dangerous driving with a focus on random breath and drug testing. At that time, Chief Police Officer Rudi Lammers said, "There's double the chance that drug-impaired and alcohol-impaired drivers will be caught.” The expansion included a van specifically designed for random roadside drug and alcohol screening. As with drink-driving, the penalties for drug-driving increase if the driver is found to be a repeat offender.

A repeat offender drug-driver faces an automatic disqualification from driving for five years (reducible to 12 months). The same applies to a repeat-offender Level 4 drink-driver. The repeat drink-driver faces imprisonment for 12 months; the repeat drug-driver for 3 months.

Those apprehended for drug-driving are given a notice by police that they are not to drive a motor vehicle for 12 hours after their apprehension. Those apprehended for drink-driving, if their blood-alcohol content is more than 0.05 over their limit, are immediately suspended from driving for three months. Both are later served with summonses for court.

where to next?

In Canberra, traffic offences are treated seriously. Therefore, it is important to get competent legal advice as early as possible, whether you have received a penalty notice, had your licence suspended or been charged with a serious offence. Our lawyers are highly experienced and understand the difficulties you face without a licence. We can guide you through the process while dealing with the various authorities related to your matter.

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