This page contains questions and answers on legislation to combat drug impaired driving.
The Land Transport Act 1998(external link) gives Police powers to deal with the problem of people driving under the influence of drugs.
The drug driving provisions of the Land Transport Act 1998 came into force on 1 November 2009 (through the Land Transport Amendment Act 2009(external link)).
The Amendment Act also reformed the law regulating the registration and licensing of motor vehicles. These changes came into force on 1 May 2011. Information on these changes is available on the NZ Transport Agency website(external link). Information is also available on the Ministry website about ongoing access to the Motor Vehicle Register.
What is the Land Transport Act offence for drug impaired drivers?
It is an offence to drive while impaired and with evidence in the bloodstream of a qualifying drug. The presence of a qualifying drug alone is not sufficient for an offence; there must first be impairment as demonstrated by unsatisfactory performance of the compulsory impairment test.
This law complements drivers' duty to be mentally and physically fit when they drive a motor vehicle on public roads - this includes not being impaired by alcohol or drugs.
There is also an offence of driving or attempting to drive while under the influence of drink or drugs to the extent of being incapable of proper control of a motor vehicle. Police have the option of charging the person with this offence, if there is sufficient supporting evidence.
What substances are looked for in the blood test?
Police can test for the presence of qualifying drugs if a driver fails a compulsory impairment test.
Qualifying drugs include controlled drugs that are set out in the following specified schedules in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975(external link):
Schedule 1, Schedule 2, and Parts 1, 4, and 7 of Schedule 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.
Parliament agreed that the law should also cover the family of drugs known as benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety, tranquilliser medication). These comprise the following drugs:
Also included are —
(i) any controlled drug analogue (within the meaning of controlled drug analogue in section 2(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975); and
(ii) any prescription medicine; but excluded is any substance, preparation, mixture, or article if it is excluded by regulations made under the Land Transport Act.
A full list of prescription medicines that are included can be found in the Medicines Regulations 1984(external link).
In analysing the results of the blood test, Police target the substances which pose the highest risk for road users and which are the most likely to be used by New Zealand drivers. Drugs targeted are likely to include opiates, amphetamines, cannabis, sedatives, antidepressants and methadone. The list will be reviewed from time to time in the light of research, and changes in New Zealanders’ drug taking habits.
It is important to note that the law provides a defence for a person who can prove that they were using the qualifying drug in accordance with a current prescription and instructions from the manufacturer, the doctor who prescribed it or the pharmacist who dispensed it.
How is this enforced?
Where a Police officer has “good cause to suspect” that a driver has consumed a drug or drugs, the officer may require the driver to take a compulsory impairment test.
Grounds for having good cause to suspect include erratic driving or, if the driver has been stopped for another reason, appearing to be under the influence of drugs. An example of the latter is the person stopped at an alcohol checkpoint who is behaving in an intoxicated manner but passes a breath alcohol test.
If the driver does not satisfactorily complete the compulsory impairment test, the Police officer may forbid the driver to drive, and require the driver to provide a blood sample.
Forbidding the person to drive deals with the immediate road safety risk represented by the impaired driver. Drivers who give an unsatisfactory performance on the impairment test can be forbidden to drive for 12 hours (the period of prohibition applied to a driver who is over the legal adult breath alcohol limit) but this may vary depending on the discretion on the Police officer.
The procedure for taking a blood sample is the same as for drink drivers who opt for a blood test. When the blood test results are known, Police make a decision whether or not to charge the driver.
What is the compulsory impairment test?
The compulsory test includes:
- an eye assessment – pupil size, reaction to light, lack of convergence, nystagmus (ie abnormal eye movement - irregular eye movement can be a marker for drug impairment)
- a walk and turn assessment
- a one leg stand assessment.
It is based on a test used in the UK and adapted for the New Zealand Police by experts from Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. Details of the test are published in the New Zealand Government Gazette(external link).
Why are prescription medicines included in the offence?
The law treats controlled drugs and prescription medicines even handedly because both can impair a person’s ability to drive safely. This law is concerned with road safety risk, not with the use of drugs per se.
The law provides a defence for a person who can prove that they were using the qualifying drug in accordance with a current prescription and instructions from the manufacturer, the doctor who prescribed it or the pharmacist who dispensed it.
Does this law oblige doctors and pharmacists to warn their patients?
The law does not impose any additional obligations on doctors or pharmacists. Naturally, doctors and pharmacists will continue to provide advice to their patients on the possible side effects of drugs or prescription medicines (including any potential adverse impacts on driving) in accordance with accepted standards of clinical practice.
What happens if the driver is injured?
If the driver is injured or incapacitated to the extent that he or she cannot undertake the compulsory impairment test, he or she cannot be required to undertake it. Under the Land Transport Act 1998, Police can require a person in hospital or a doctor’s surgery as a result of being injured in a motor vehicle accident to provide a blood sample for the purpose of testing whether Class A controlled drugs are present.
This is consistent with the law for drink driving where Police may require a person in hospital or a doctor’s surgery as a result of being injured in a motor vehicle accident to provide a blood sample to determine whether or not the person is over the blood alcohol limit.
What is the penalty for drug impaired driving?
The penalties for drug impaired driving are aligned with the penalties for drink driving offences. The table below gives examples of the penalties.
|Nature of Offence||Penalties|
||Drug Impaired - First or second offence||
|Drug Impaired - Third or subsequent offence||
|Causing injury or death
||Drug impaired driving causing injury||
|Drug impaired driving causing death||
In situations where impairment cannot be proved, but there is evidence of drugs in the bloodstream other penalties can apply.
How will agencies get a better understanding of the drug driving problem in New Zealand?
Getting a better understanding of drug driving is not an easy task. There are periodic surveys undertaken by government agencies, and some non-government organisations, asking people to self-report on drug taking and driving after having used drugs. Given the illicit nature of some drugs, many people will be reluctant to be honest about their drug use.
Government agencies are working to improve data on drug driving and will continue to undertake research on this subject.