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References on Drugs and Driving

Alcohol, Drugs and Driving - A Federal Perspective

Margaret Smythe

Federal Office of Road Safety, Department of Transport, GPO Box 594, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia


This paper will discuss the role of the Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) in countering drink and drug driving in Australia, through its activities in research and public education, contributions to governmental policy planning, and relationships with a range of organisations.

Examples of FORS' recent research and public education activities relating to drink driving, will be described. This will include the "Rethink Your Third Drink" and "Smart Card" campaigns, which relate to how much drivers may drink and still remain within the legal blood alcohol limits, as well as the "Light Right" advertisement, which encourages the substitution of low alcohol beer. The research performed by FORS and other key players that instigated the campaigns will be outlined, as well as the results of evaluations/monitoring activities.


The Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) guides the development of measures to reduce the incidence and severity of crashes in Australia. FORS conducts research into the causes of road crashes, develops standards and policies to improve the safety of road users, develops public education programs and provides policy advice to a range of government and other road safety organisations. The Office also administers the Motor Vehicles Standards Act 1989 which sets uniform national vehicle safety, emissions and noise standards (Australian Design Rules) for all vehicles entering the Australian market for the first time. Other responsibilities include dealing with vehicle safety-related defects, fuel efficiency and the transport of dangerous goods.


The objective of the Road Safety research program is to provide a sound basis for future policy development, and for implementation of public education programs to promote safer practices. The Federal Road Safety Research program supports the development and cost-benefit analysis of new-vehicle safety; the maintenance of national statistical databases needed to plan and evaluate programs and provide reliable inter-jurisdictional comparisons; a rational approach to national consistency in road user regulation, through objective and impartial research to identify best practice, including inter-jurisdictional comparisons; an efficient approach to research on major issues of common national interest; and the development and targeting of national public education campaigns

Research activities of the Commonwealth and States are coordinated through a Road Safety Research Forum, on which all jurisdictions are represented, and which operates within the broad priorities established by the National Road Safety Strategy (endorsed by Australian Transport Ministers in April 1992) (NRSS 1992); a national register of current and proposed projects; and frequent informal consultation between jurisdictions.

The FORS research program also takes into account priorities identified by the National Road Trauma Advisory Council, and priorities agreed between FORS and the National Road Transport Commission, as part of the joint work program of these organisations.

Public education provides an essential complement to enforcement activity in achieving major improvements in road safety and in gaining community support for regulatory measures. The public education activities of FORS are intended to complement the current activities of state and territory road safety authorities (and others), and identify future directions for efforts. FORS' approach involves identifying priorities that are not being adequately covered; developing innovative approaches that complement state and territory public education and enforcement programs; and ensuring that road safety education information is available and accessible to all Australians.


The involvement of alcohol in road crashes is a major road safety concern, and one of national significance. Drink driving is the single most important factor in fatal road crashes in Australia, and no jurisdiction is without this problem.

Although the incidence of blood alcohol concentration readings above 0.05gm/100ml in drivers and motorcycle riders killed in road crashes has declined as a result of the application of a number of countermeasures, around one-third of road fatalities from these categories are still found to have BAC levels in excess of 0.05. Different jurisdictions have achieved varying degrees of success in their efforts to address drink driving.

FORS has an important role in enabling interjurisdictional research and evaluation of drink driving countermeasures, providing a comparative perspective which would be missing if left to the individual jurisdictions, for reasons of resource priorities and insularity. As the link between alcohol use and road crashes is well established , research activities over the past 5 years have generally focussed on strategies aimed at further reducing the incidence of drink driving. Particular attention has been paid to activities aimed at identifying best practice in this area. FORS, being independent from State and Territory road safety authorities, is in a position to carry out evaluations of enforcement activities which might otherwise not occur, and encourage change where necessary, without bias.

Over the last five years the major focus of research has been on prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation strategies. This includes:

  • An extended research program involving the development and testing of a rural community-based drink driving rehabilitation program and community interventions aimed at changing drink driving attitudes and behaviour, performed by the University of Queensland. This has been successfully implemented as a pilot project in rural Central Queensland, and is likely to be adopted throughout Queensland. FORS has convened a national workshop of road safety and health practitioners to consider the extension of the program and method to other jurisdictions. Further objective evaluation of outcomes is planned for the future.
  • A two year study reviewing random breath testing (RBT) implementation and outcomes in a number of Australian states, performed by Griffith University. One conclusion of this review is that there is a need for more effective training of police which places the emphasis on RBT as a pro-active program aimed to deter rather than apprehend drink drivers, by raising drivers' perception of the risk of apprehension and punishment. This will form the basis for the development of a police training package aimed at improving the effectiveness of RBT implementation.
  • A study to obtain an estimate of the proportion of alcohol-affected crash-involved drivers who have been drinking beer exclusively (as opposed to wine, fortified wines and spirits, including mixed drinks, or a combination of beer and other beverages). The results showed that 64% of drink drivers on the road had consumed beer-only prior to police apprehension in Melbourne, with 78% for the rest of Victoria. Estimates for crash involved drink drivers were similar, with 65% and 74% consuming beer-only prior to a crash in Melbourne and the rest of Victoria. This information is being used to support governments' consideration of a proposal for a change in the excise structure to encourage a shift in consumption from full strength to low alcohol beer (Diamantopoulou et al, 1995)

In the past FORS has also commissioned or sponsored other drink driving research:

  • An investigation of the drinking behaviour and other characteristics of injured drivers and motorcycle drivers (Holubowycz et al, 1992);
  • A study to determine the residual (or hangover) effects of alcohol on driving related skills (Chesher et al, 1992);
  • Research to investigate the acceptability or otherwise of low alcohol beer as a substitute for regular beer amongst young male drivers, and to investigate beer drinking and crash involvement. Findings have contributed to continuing policy debate relating to encouraging the substitution of low alcohol beer as a strategy for reducing drink driving, and to deliberations in the creation of public education activities in this area

As well as commissioned research, FORS has carried out in-house research into drink driving issues, including:

  • An examination of the impact of new legislation in the Australian Capital Territory which reduced the legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) 0.08 g/100ml to 0.05 g/100ml. The results were used to support arguments for the introduction of similar legislation in Western Australia and the Northern Territory (Brooks et al, 1992)
  • On behalf of the National Road Trauma Advisory Council FORS carried out an inquiry into alcohol, drugs and fatigue, involving evaluation of a range of proposed countermeasures (NRTAC, 1992). The resulting recommendations have been implemented in many Australian jurisdictions. Many of the recommendations have also been incorporated into the National Road Safety Action Plan (NRSAP, 1994), which was endorsed by Federal, State and Territory Ministers at the Australian Transport Council meeting in February 1994 .

In addition to research and evaluation activities, FORS is very involved in providing well developed, coordinated and appropriately targeted public education activities relating to drink driving issues. Current examples include:

  • The "Rethink your drink" campaign, which uses television commercials to advise men and women how much alcohol they can safely consume to remain under the legal 0.05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit. These were supported by the "Smart Card", a credit card sized card, one each for men and women, providing information about 'standard' drinks.

    Campaign evaluation aimed to measure and compare awareness levels and knowledge among drink drivers of how to reduce the risk of exceeding the 0.05 BAC limit, including in relation to light/mid strength beers; awareness of the "Rethink" television commercial messages; to separately identify awareness of women of the "Rethink" messages aimed at them; to identify what mechanisms drivers use to reduce their risk of exceeding 0.05 BAC; and to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign components.

    This showed that, with continued exposure, more people in the community are recognising standard drinks and acknowledging the need to monitor alcohol consumption when driving. People are reducing the number of drinks they consume if they are driving although not necessarily to the advised numbers given in the campaign. Further research is intended to identify those in the community who have shown the greatest resistance to drinking and driving messages. The campaign has not effectively communicated the appropriate drink/driving information to a significant segment of females. There is still a need to reinforce and communicate the reasons why female drink driving levels are different to those of males, particularly in the light of the practise of many women to drive themselves and their partners home after drinking. Television remained the most important communication medium. Magazine advertising appeared to have had very little, if any impact (Elliott & Shanahan Research, 1994)

  • The "Light? Right" campaign, which encourages young rural men to substitute low alcohol beer for regular strength beer as a strategy for staying under the legal 0.05 BAC limit. Evaluation has indicated that this campaign (along with others) is assisting attitudinal and behavioural change towards drink driving amongst rural drivers, although the rerun of this campaign in late 1994/early 95 appears to have been less effective in communicating this strategy than the initial campaign in April 1994. Television has had a greater impact than print media.


While alcohol remains the drug which is most implicated in road crashes, there are indications that drug use may be a contributory factor in a significant number of serious road crashes.

The NSW Drug Driving Strategy (1994) attributes psychoactive drugs as a potential factor in around 5% of driver fatalities (compared to 30% for alcohol).

A recently released study of driver fatalities in NSW, Victoria and WA found that 36% had used alcohol, 11% had used cannabis (often in combination with alcohol), 3.7% stimulants, 3.1% benzodiazapines and 2.7% opiates. Alcohol was shown to significantly increase the relative risk of a crash, as was the combination of alcohol and these drugs. Drugs-only drivers had a slightly increased risk of being responsible for a crash, compared to the drug-free group but this was not statistically significant (Drummer, 1994).

Problems in determining the role of drugs in road crashes include the lack of reliable data on the extent of drug use among the general population compared to road crash victims, incomplete information on the effects of drug use on driving-related skills, and the fact that drug use among drivers usually involves more than one drug means it is difficult to isolate the possible effects of individual drugs on crash risk. Added to these is the lack of technology for fast, non-intrusive, accurate measurement of drug use by drivers.

Research carried out on behalf of FORS is attempting to address some of these issues. FORS' research involvement in this area is particularly crucial as the fundamental nature of elements of this research are financially and logistically beyond the resources of the smaller jurisdictions. The fact that data in this area is scarce also means that pooling data from the larger, national picture is of much greater value than that which could be achieved by one jurisdiction alone

FORS major activity recently has involved:

  • A program of research to investigate the incidence of legal and illegal drugs in heavy vehicle, bus and general drivers; to validate the use of saliva analysis as a research tool for determining drug usage by drivers who have not been involved in crashes; and to examine the contribution of drugs to road crashes. Preliminary findings from the surveys have been provided to the Commonwealth Department of Health at their request to assist in their formulation of the National Drug Strategic Plan 1993-97 Key National Indicators (used in evaluating the effectiveness of the National Drug Strategy). Two reports from the program, CR 140 Drugs and Traffic Safety, and CR 141 Analysis for Drugs in Saliva, have been released and disseminated to road safety authorities and health authorities throughout Australian and overseas.
  • FORS and VICROADS are currently collaborating on a research project to review research on Behavioural Testing for Drugs, and through consultation with relevant Australian authorities will develop recommendations for a standardised approach to such testing in Australia. This is intended to complement chemical testing rather than replace the need for this, as the two forms of evidence will remain necessary to obtain a legal conviction.

    To date, two workshops have been held: the first attended by police officers and other representatives from all states and territories involved in drink and drug driving matters. It was confirmed that very little sobriety testing of any sort currently occurs in most jurisdictions, and that there was a need for nationally uniform or at least harmonious drug testing legislation and standardised sobriety testing procedures. Subsequent work has involved training police in behavioural testing techniques based in part on the LAPD Drug Recognition procedures. A manual is being developed from this.

  • FORS has been involved in an AUSTROADS research project which investigated the feasibility and methodology for establishing a national database of the incidence of drugs in drivers killed in road crashes. This involved a short term pilot study to combine data from NSW and Victoria with WA data. The outcome from the study is that collection of national data for drug involvement in fatal crashes will be attempted for those states that test for drugs in crash fatalities (currently Vic, WA and NSW). Through Austroads, other jurisdictions will be encouraged to test all drivers killed in fatal crashes for drugs. This drug data will be incorporated into the FORS Fatal File, which together with culpability analysis will enable both the incidence of drug driving and risk levels associated with the larger drug groups, to be assessed and monitored in an ongoing fashion. Once a more complete picture is developed, decisions relating to resourcing , and identifying appropriate public education activities can be made.


Brooks, C and Zaal, D (1992). Effects of a 0.05 Alcohol Limit in the Australian Capital Territory - 1992; Federal Office of Road Safety MR 10, Canberra, ACT

Chesher G, Fox A, Greeley J, Lemon J, Nabke C (1992). Investigation of the "Hangover" Effects of an Acute Dose of Alcohol on Psychomotor Performance. CR103 Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Diamantopoulou, K, Cameron, M, and Mullan, N. (1995), The Contribution of Beer Consumption to Drink Driving. CR 152, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Drummer, O H (1994). Drugs in Drivers Killed in Australian Road Traffic Accidents. The use of responsibility analysis to investigate the contribution of drugs to fatal accidents. Report No. 0594, Victorian Institute of Forensic Pathology, Monash University.

Elliott, B (1994) Monitoring the "Rethink Your Drink" Public Education Campaign. Public Education Market Research Report, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Elliott, B (1995) Evaluation of the 1994-5 "Light? Right" Rural Road Safety Campaign. Public Education Market Research Report, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Holubowycz O T, Kloeden, C N, and McLean A J (1992) Drinking Behaviour and other Characteristics of Injured Drivers and Riders. Research Report 2/92, NH&MRC Road Accident Research Unit, Adelaide, SA.

National Road Safety Strategy (1992), Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

National Road Safety Action Plan (1994), Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

National Road Trauma Advisory Council, (1992), Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Fatigue. Canberra, ACT.

NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's Drug-Driving Task Force, (1994). The NSW Drug Driving Strategy.

Starmer, G A and Mascord, D J (1994). Drugs and Traffic Safety. CR140, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT.

Starmer, G A, Mascord, D J, Tattam, B and Zeleny, R (1994). Analysis for Drugs in Saliva. CR 141, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT.


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