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Legal approaches to drugs and driving

There is concern over the effects of drug use on the general population, including the possible reduction in ability to drive a motor vehicle safely on the public road.  Although driving under the influence of alcohol is already established as an offence in all countries, drug abuse has only been addressed more recently.  There is wide public support that police should test for drugs at the same time as alcohol.  According to various studies, the prevalence of licit drug use (mainly benzodiazepines) amongst drivers is higher than for illicit drugs (mainly cannabis and opiates).

This Topic Overview aims to give a descriptive overview of the wide variety of legal mechanisms used to sanction this phenomenon in the EU and Norway – whether provisions exist in drug control laws or road traffic laws, the substances addressed, the status and levels of penalties, any levels of tolerance[1], and whether drivers can be stopped for tests at any time or if the police require some form of suspicion beforehand. It excludes provisions for driving or operating other forms of vehicles, such as rail, sea or air traffic.

You can also see the earlier, more detailed, ELDD Legal Report on Drugs and Driving covering 15 countries.  Other EMCDDA research in this area includes a 1999 literature review on the relation between drug use, impaired driving and traffic accidents.

European Union level

Annex III of Council Directive 91/439/EEC of 29 July 1991 on driving licences states that “Driving licences shall not be issued to or renewed for applicants or drivers who are dependent on psychotropic substances or who are not dependent on such substances but regularly abuse them”.  Addressing legally prescribed medicines, it also laid down that “Driving licences shall not be issued to, or renewed for, applicants or drivers who regularly use psychotropic substances, in whatever form, which can hamper the ability to drive safely where the quantities absorbed are such as to have an adverse effect on driving. This shall apply to all other medicinal products or combinations of medicinal products which affect the ability to drive.”

The references to psychotropic substances are aimed at all psychoactive substances.  The provision to limit driving licences to persons not dependent on certain substances may now be interpreted to prohibit issuing or renewal of licences to patients undergoing substitution treatment.

The EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000-2004 called for research of driving under the effects of illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals, but during that period some countries seemed to focus their legal provisions directly on penalising such behaviour (See ELDD Legal Report “Legislative activity in the period 2000–2004”).  The EU Action Plan on Drugs 2005-2008 called for selective prevention in various settings, including drugs and driving, while Action 10 of the current EU Action Plan on Drugs 2009-2012 calls for universal prevention in this area. Coordinated by DG TREN, the EU Road Safety Action Programme 2003-2010 (COM (2003)311), s.5.1.1, encourages continuation of work on the effects of drugs and medicines, with appropriate classification and labelling of medicines which affect driving ability.

The Council Resolution of 27 November 2003 on combating the impact of psychoactive substances use on road accidents underlined the importance of “taking any appropriate measures, which may include sanctions, in respect of vehicle drivers who are under the influence of psychoactive substances, which reduce their capacity to drive”.

A number of EU projects have been completed.  ROSITA and ROSITA-2 examined roadside drug testing devices, CERTIFIED assessed the drugs which caused the highest risk to impairment, IMMORTAL studied various types of impairment and their related aspects (laws, epidemiology, risk assessment, testing) and their effects on driver licensing. 

The latest project, DRUID, aims to gain new insights to the real degree of impairment caused by psychoactive drugs and their actual impact on road safety, in order to provide a solid base to generate harmonised, EU-wide regulations.

National level

There are many factors to be taken into account, including the availability of practical and reliable drug testing, the impact of drugs and driving on public safety, and countries’ attitudes towards consuming illegal drugs.  In some countries, such as Finland, a person found with traces of illicit drugs in their body during a test for drug driving may be prosecuted for illicit drug consumption; in other countries, such as Belgium and the UK, there are specific clauses in the road traffic law which prohibit the results of the tests to be used for any other criminal charge.  The law may separate or combine the objectives of road safety or control of illicit drugs.

The law should be enforceable and credible.  It is not easy to prove scientifically that a person was actually under the influence at the time of driving, ie their skills were affected[i], but the alternative approach, to penalise levels of detection (the “zero tolerance” approach) means the driving may not have been affected at all, as some metabolites may be detected for days or even weeks after taking the drug[ii].  In addition, some laws provide for a driver to be adversely affected, whereas others may simply mention being under the influence – this latter clause could theoretically justify punishment of a person who has taken a controlled substance in order to be well enough to drive a vehicle.

Finally, there is the matter of interpretation; while a law may define the offence as a driver being under the influence, this may be interpreted as having any trace of a substance in the blood.

Although the status of offences is not strictly comparable across the EU as there are various methods of classifying, we have here opted to show criminal or non-criminal – the non-criminal may include offence status such as administrative, civil, minor, misdemeanour, etc.  From the table above, the clear majority only have criminal offences, 3 countries only have non-criminal offences and 6 have both criminal and non-criminal offences in their laws.

The debate about random stopping of drivers in order to test them, ongoing for some years now, shows no clear majority on either side, with half the countries permitting random stopping and the other half requiring suspicion.

Most countries prohibit driving under the influence of any substance.  However, a few countries define the list of drugs causing the offence, which may exclude certain drugs such as medicines or new synthetic drugs which are not yet under control. Belgium, Germany and Finland have a two-tier system, prohibiting impairment by any drug but also identifying certain substances for zero tolerance.  On this issue of zero tolerance or impairment, there is again no clear majority of countries choosing one approach rather than the other – in fact, four countries actually have both.

The punishments, in the forms of licence suspension periods, fines, and prison sentences, vary massively.  Licence suspension may be for a maximum of a few months in one country but a minimum of a year in others.  Fines may be from a few hundred to several thousand euros.  And maximum prison sentences, even for offences that are not strictly comparable (for example, was death or injury caused?) vary from days to years.

 

Status of offence

Police may stop to test:

Substances

specified

Tolerance

 (zero / impairment)

Licence Suspension period

Fine range

Prison

Legal basis

Belgium

Criminal

At random

Any

 

 

 

Impairment

 

 

 

1 mth –

5 years

€1000-

10 000

No

Loi du 16 mars 1999 modifiant la loi relative à la police de la circulation routière.

Arrêté royal du 4 juin 1999 relatif au prélèvement sanguin

 

 

7 named substances

Zero

 

 

 

 

Bulgaria

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Zero

up to 3 years, but not less than the period of imprisonment

No

Up to 2 years

Penal code, art. 343b (3)

Czech Republic

Criminal

 

At random

Any

Impairment

 

1-10 years

(general range for all criminal offences)

 

CZK 2 000-5 000 000 (€70-179 000)
(general range for all criminal offences)

Up to 1 year;
6 mths-3 years if previously sentenced, accident etc.

Penal Code (140/1961), s. 201

Non-criminal

 

Any

Zero

 

6 mths to 1 year

 

CZK 10 000-20 000 (€357-714)

No

 

Law on Misdemeanours (200/1990), s. 22

 

 

 

 

Impairment

1-2 years

CZK 25 000-50 000
(€893-1786)

No

Law on Misdemeanours (200/1990), s. 22

Denmark

Criminal

At random

Any, except if in accordance with medical prescription

Impairment, above defined limits

6 mths – 10 years or for life

No fixed fine range

Up to 1 year

Road Traffic Act (LBK 1079 of 14 November 2005), ss.54, 55, 117d, 125, 126, 128. Act 524 of 6 June 2007, BEK 655 of 19 June 2007

Germany

Criminal

 

 

 

On basis of suspicion

Any

 

 

 

Impairment

 

 

 

1-3 mths or withdrawal

 

 

 

General range for all criminal offences:

according to the income of the offender

s.315c (if endangering property or others): up to 5 years

s.316: up to 1 yr

Criminal Code (StGB) ss.315c, 316,

 

 

Non-criminal

On basis of suspicion

7 named substances

(Zero but Fed.Constitutional Court 2004:)

Impairment

1-3 mths

Up to €3000

No

Road Traffic Code (StVG) s.24a(2)

Estonia

Non-criminal

 

 

 

 

 

At random

Any

 

 

 

 

Zero

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up to 1 year

 

 

 

 

 

Up to €1150

 

 

 

 

 

 

Administrative arrest in police detention house up to 30 days instead of fine

 

 

Traffic Act (adopted 14 Dec 2000, entered into force 1 Feb 2001; later amendments include §201): §20, §201

 

Penal Code (adopted 6 June  2001, entered into force 1 Sep 2002; later amendments include §50): §50

Criminal if recent recidivist (including from alcohol intoxication)

 

 

 

Up to 3 years

30-500 daily rates (average daily income)

Up to 3 years

 

Traffic Act (see above);

Penal Code (see above): §50, §424

Greece

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

3-6 mths

From €167

2 mths

Law 2696/99, s.42, completed by Law 2963/2001(art.43) and Ministerial Accord 43500/5691/2002

Spain

Criminal

At random

Any

Impairment

1-4 years

 

3-6 mths

Penal Code art.379

Non-criminal

 

Any

Impairment

 

1-3 mths

€301-600

No

Law 17/2005 of 19 July, Arts 5-6

France

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Substances or plants classed as narcotics

Zero

 

Up to 3 years

€4500.

€9000 if the driver is  also under the influence of alcohol

2 years.

3 yrs if the driver is also under the influence of alcohol

Law 2003-87 of 3 Feb, law 99-505,(Art.L. 235-1and L. 235-2 of code de la route) decree 2001-751 of 27 Aug (Art. R-235-1 and following of code de la route)

Ireland

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

Minimum

1 year

Up to €2500

Up to 6 mths

Road Traffic Acts 1961 - 2002

Italy

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

15 days – 3 months. In case of more offences in the same year the period goes from 1 up to 6 months.

€ 258 – 1.032

Up to 1 mth

Law 285/1992 updated to may 2006 (New Highway Code), Art 186 and 187

Cyprus

Criminal

At random.  Testing also possible on reasonable suspicion

Any

Impairment

Not specified. Up to court’s discretion

No fixed fine range

Up to 1 year

Motor vehicle and Road Traffic Law of 1972,s.9.  Usually prosecution under the Narcotics Law of 1977, since use and possession is a criminal offence under that law anyway. No need to prove that the ability to drive safely was affected under the Narcotics Law.

Latvia

Non-criminal

 

Any / medicinal

Any drug – zero

Medicinal product  - impairment

2 years

Any drug - LVL500

Medicinal product – LVL 30-200

Administrative arrest shall be imposed for a period from 10 up to 15 days

Administrative Violations Code, 149.15

 

Criminal (for recidivists within 1 yr)

 

Any

Zero

Up to 5 years

fine not exceeding fifty times the minimum monthly wage

Up to 2 years

Criminal Code s.262

Lithuania

Non-criminal (criminal if causing injury or death)

On basis of suspicion

Any

Zero

 

1-3 years

 

 

€290-870

Administrative arrest from 10 to 30 days instead of fine with confiscation of vehicle from 2 up to 3 years

Administrative Law Offences Code of the Republic of Lithuania  Art.126

Luxembourg

Criminal

On basis of suspicion.

At random only if ordered by the Public Prosecutor

All controlled substances

Impairment, legally defined as above certain saliva concentrations

1 mth - life

€250-5000

8 days –

3 years

Loi modifiant la loi du 14 février 1955 concernant la réglementation de la circulation sur toutes les voies publiques, Art 12

Loi 18 septembre 2007

Hungary

Criminal

At random for alcohol

Any

Impairment

1-10 years or life

No determinate fine

Up to 1 year without aggravating circumstances

Criminal Code Art.188

Netherlands

 

Criminal

 

 

 

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

Up to 5 years

€6700

 

If accident causing bodily injury – up to

€ 16 750

 

If fatality –

€ 16 750, or 

€67 000 if reckless

 

up to 3 mths

 

 

If accident causing bodily injury -  2 year and 3 months, or 4.5 years if reckless

 

If fatality – 4.5 years, or  9 years if reckless

Road Traffic Law 1994, Art.8

Austria

Non-criminal

Assumption (less specific than suspicion)

"Suchtgift"; generally drugs under UN61 and Schedules I+2 of UN71

Impairment

At least 4 weeks

€581-3633

No

Road Traffic Act, Arts.5, 99

Poland

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Zero

From 1 to 10 years

Up to 360 day fines

Up to 2 years

Criminal Code, Art. 178a

Slovenia

Non-criminal

At random

Any

Zero

at least 10 penal points

* 18 penal points mean withdrawal of driving licence and re-test

From €500

No

Road Safety Law 83/2004 (Articles 131-133)

 

 

Slovakia

Non-criminal

 

 

At random

Any

Zero

Up to 1 yr

 

 

€200-1000, or up to €3500 (legal person)

No

 

 

 

Act 372/1990 Coll. on Adminstrative Offences S.22(1)(f)

 

Criminal (if recidivist or public transport)

 

Any

Impairment

1-10 years (general ban on activity)

€160 euros to €331 930 (general fine)

 

Up to 1 yr (recidivist)

Up to 5 yrs (public transport)

Criminal Code S. 289

 

Act 8/2009 Coll. on Road Traffic S. 4(2)(b,c) (obligations of driver); S. 69 (1)(d)(testing); S. 70(1)(c) (licence suspension)

Sweden

Criminal

 

 

 

On basis of suspicion

Any, but no liability if in accordance with medical prescription

Zero

1 mth –

3 years

Day fines

Up to 2 years

Act on Punishment for some Traffic Crimes (1951:649), s.4

Finland

Criminal

At random

Any

 

 

Impairment

 

Up to 5 years

Up to 120 day-fines

 

Up to 2 years

 

Penal Code Ch.23, s.3, 4, 8

Criminal

 

Narcotic substance other than medicinal product which a person has a right to use

Zero

 

 

At least 60 day-fines if seriously intoxicated

Up to 6 mths

 

United Kingdom

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

Minimum 1 year (unlimited maximum)

Up to £5000

Up to 6 mths, or up to 14 years if fatality

Road Traffic Act s.4

Croatia

Non-criminal

At random

Any

Zero

Up to 6 mths

5000-15 000 KN (€680-2039)

Up to 2 mths

Law on the Safety in Road Traffic 67/2008, Art. 199.

Norway

 

Criminal

On basis of suspicion

Any

Impairment

Minimum 1 year

1,5 x gross monthly income. Rarely under NOK 10 000,-

Up to 1 year

Road Traffic Act of 18 June 1965 No.4, ss 21-22, 31, 33

 


[1] In general, countries may either operate policies of “zero tolerance”, in which any trace of drug found is penalised no matter what the effect on the driver; or “impairment”, when drivers will be punished only if their driving skills were obviously affected.  This is due to lack of scientific agreement up to now about what levels of concentration of the drug in the body may show impairment, and lack of suitable equipment for roadside testing.


[i] ICADTS (1999) “Illegal Drugs and Driving”, Executive Summary

[ii] “Cannabis may be found in blood as long as 28 days after last use or even longer”: British Medical Association (2003) “Driving under the influence of drugs”, p.4 at http://www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/DrugsDriving

 

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Page last updated: Friday, 15 July 2011