James Baggott spends an afternoon with a drug detection officer and tries out the Field Impairment Test which will be used by police across the country.
For what is effectively a family car, the Interceptor-emblazoned BMW looks incredibly menacing just parked up in the car park of a Hampshire police station – let alone looming large in your rear view mirror.
With bright blue and yellow paintwork it’s hardly inconspicuous, but then that’s the point.
I’m here in Havant to spend the afternoon with the car’s current custodian PC Jon Lansley for a look at how the police are enforcing drug-driving laws.
The Interceptor might not be PC Lansley’s to keep, but the drug-detecting kit he and his colleagues are putting to the test certainly are.
PC Lansley, of Hampshire Constabulary, is one of seven highly-trained drug detection officers in the UK and he has been road testing the new kits that have just been given approval for use by the Home Office.
The mouth swabs – billed DrugWipe 3S – detect drivers who are under the influence of cocaine and cannabis in less than eight minutes at the side of the road.
‘We tried several different types of screener kits and most of them work just like a pregnancy test, except it’s not urine but saliva,’ explained PC Lansley.
In March, a new drug driving offence will come into force which will allow the police to prosecute offenders and punish them with up to six months in prison, a 12-month driving ban and fines of up to £5,000.
‘The screeners work on a close-to-zero-tolerance policy,’ said PC Lansley.
‘The advice to drivers is simple and just as it is to drink drivers – if you don’t want to get caught don’t drink or take drugs before you get behind the wheel.’
PUT TO THE TEST
Up until these new kits were introduced, drug drivers have been detected by officers using a Field Impairment Test, or FIT test for short, at the side of the road.
These are much like the sobriety tests you see on TV programme Police, Camera, Action from the States, and before we head out on patrol, PC Lansley puts me through one.
It soon becomes clear why they work so well.
First my pupils are checked for dilation – a common indicator of drug use – then I’m made to tip my head back and count to 30 in my head and let the officer know when I think that time has elapsed. Even though I’m completely sober, I still overestimate by eight seconds.
I’m then made to walk along a white line, heel to toe, and turn tightly on the spot with my hands at my sides, then stand on one leg and count out loud before being told to touch my nose with outstretched arms with my eyes closed.
‘These five tests are pretty easy to complete when you’re sober, but when you’re under the influence they’re tough and it helps us identify offenders quickly,’ explained PC Lansley.
I try the tests again wearing goggles that simulate someone twice the legal limit, and PC Lansley’s right – it’s impossible to walk in a straight line. If I’d been driving in this state, I would have been arrested and taken to a police station where a doctor would perform a blood test.
Up to speed on the drug-driving checks, we head out in the BMW Interceptor while my photographer colleague hitches a lift in an unmarked 3 Series. We’re on the look-out for anyone committing a road traffic offence whom we can pull over and check for impairment.
PC Lansley said: ‘We can ask any driver who has committed a road traffic violation or who has been involved in a collision to complete a FIT test, drug screening or breathalyser.’
PC Lansley, 39, has been with the force since 1997 – before that he was a lifeguard – and he started working with the traffic department in 2000. He’s now a national drug detection instructor for other officers and even teaches American officers his trade.
‘On an average shift of nine-10 hours I will pull over around 20-30 drivers – and at least one of those will be subjected to a FIT test,’ he explains.
We’re in a side road on a housing estate near the police station on the hunt for traffic offenders when just literally five minutes after parking we catch a driver.
A white van man passes without his seatbelt on – enough for PC Lansley to fire up the blues and twos and pull him over.
The driver admits not wearing his belt and PC Lansley performs a FIT test and breathalyses him. He passes both and Sgt Lansley lets him go with just a warning.
‘You’d be amazed at how many drivers still don’t wear their seatbelt – that and mobile phone use are very common,’ he explains.
‘My biggest pet hate, though, is cyclists riding without lights. I can stop them and give them a £50 ticket and I do. I ride a bike to work every day and know how unsafe not having lights is.’
So does PC Lansley think the new drug-screening kits will make a big difference?
‘The current kits screen for three drugs and there are other kits that screen for more but they haven’t been approved yet,’ he explains.
‘Combined with the FIT tests and the knowledge we’ve picked up over the last few years they’ll be a useful addition in cracking down on drug-driving for sure.’
And anything that helps reduce the chances of fatalities on the road caused by under-the-influence drivers is a good thing in our book.
James Baggott is managing director of Gosport-based automotive media specialist BlackballMedia.co.uk
Warning over cold and flu medicines and legal limits when driving
Heavily-medicated drivers suffering from common colds or flu could be unwittingly breaking drug-driving laws without even knowing it.
A large number of over-the-counter remedies can result in drivers being unfit to get behind the wheel – and police officers are seeing an increase in the number of offenders this year.
In Hampshire, officers have warned that prescription medication is one of the most common substances detected during impairment tests.
‘Prescription and other medications easily purchased at pharmacists, such as Sudafed or Night Nurse, can make drivers very drowsy and severely affect their driving,’ explained PC Jon Lansley.
‘These drugs make it clear they can affect driving on the labels, but often when drivers feel unwell they dose themselves up on these and don’t realise the consequences.’
At this time of year, drug-driving offences for perfectly legal substances is higher than that of cannabis and cocaine, explained the police officer.
Police in Hampshire were among the first in the country to test new drug-screening kits – called DrugWipe 3S – which detect illegal substances from a swab of saliva.
However, officers have caught drivers under the influence of cough and cold medicines with roadside Field Impairment Tests.
PC Lansley added: ‘These cold remedies can sometimes be safe in normal doses, but you’ll find most people take more than the recommended amount and then vision can blur and other functions vital to safe driving start to deteriorate, too.
‘I’d always advise to read the labels carefully and be aware that drugs – whether legal or illegal – can have a serious effect on your ability to drive.’