Drug drivers beware: zero-tolerance law in force today welcomed by campaigners

Monday 2 March 2015

Brake, the road safety charity

A new law against drug driving coming into force today (2 March 2015) has been strongly welcomed by road safety charity Brake, which has been campaigning for the law alongside families bereaved by drug driving. The law will make it a criminal offence to drive with drugs in your body in England and Wales, removing the need to prove impairment and making it much easier to prosecute drug drivers.

The new law has specified zero-tolerance limits for a range of illegal drugs, and will be enforced with the aid of roadside screening devices. Those found guilty will face a maximum six month jail sentence, £5,000 fine, and automatic 12 month driving ban.

The extent of the UK’s drug driving problem was revealed by Brake and Direct Line last year, in their survey finding that the equivalent of one million drivers (3%) admitted to having driven on drugs in the past year. One in nine (11%) said they thought they had been a passenger with a driver on drugs [1]. It's estimated that drug driving may account for as many as 200 deaths a year in the UK [2].

As well as tackling drivers on illegal drugs, the law clarifies the position for drivers using medication, with set limits for a number of prescribed drugs that can affect driving. Drivers taking medication in accordance with the advice of a healthcare professional will not be at risk of arrest.

Brake is reminding drivers that some prescription and over-the-counter medications can make you unsafe on the road, and is urging them to always read the label, or check with their doctor or pharmacist if unsure, and never to drive if their driving may be impaired. A Brake survey in June last year found one in six drivers (17%) either ignore warnings not to drive or do not check at all [3].

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, said: “Drug driving wrecks lives, and it is a crime for which there is no excuse. We are delighted that our long-running campaign for a tougher law is finally seeing success. We believe the government is doing the right thing by taking a zero tolerance approach; we hope this will make it clear that driving on any amount of drugs won’t be tolerated. Anyone tempted to drive on drugs should be in absolutely no doubt of the penalties they face for endangering people’s lives and that it simply isn’t worth the risk. We will continue to campaign for further action to stamp out risky, illegal driving that ends and ruins lives daily. The crucial next step to back up this and other vital life-saving traffic laws is for government to give greater priority to traffic policing, to ensure the recent trend of falling traffic police numbers is reversed.”

The new law is also being welcomed by the family of 14 year old Croydon school girl Lillian Groves, who was killed outside her home by a speeding driver on cannabis in June 2010. Their campaigning was instrumental in securing the change, which is also known as Lillian’s Law.

Lillian’s mum, Natasha Groves, said: “The new law is very welcome. We are pleased the government has taken on board the severity of drug driving and acted accordingly by implementing zero-tolerance limits, roadside drug testing and serious penalties for those found guilty. The legislation is now up to date and fit for purpose. Having to prove impairment will no longer be a matter of judgement, but a testable fact.

When we learnt, in 2011, that this was not already the case, it was incomprehensible. We have fought tirelessly since losing Lillian, and our determination has brought about this significant change. It has been a tough and emotional journey for us all. Lillian is not the only one to have lost her life through the ignorance, arrogance and stupidity of those who mix drugs with driving. Those who continue to drive while on drugs from 2 March will now have so much to lose. We have achieved this law change in Lillian’s name and her legacy will live on and our roads will be that bit safer.”

Find out more about Brake’s not a drop, not a drag campaign. Tweet us: @Brakecharity, #NotADrag.


Illegal drugs have a variety of very serious negative effects on driving ability, and the effects can be highly unpredictable given their unregulated and variable nature. Drugs affect different people in different ways and the effects can last for days, sometimes without that person being aware of it. The likely effects of some common illegal drugs on driving include:

  • Cannabis slows your reaction times, affects your coordination and concentration and makes you drowsy [4].
  • 'Stimulant' drugs such as ecstasy, speed and cocaine distort your perceptions and make you jumpy. They can also make you over-confident or paranoid and confused [5].
  • Heroin and other opiates make you feel relaxed and sleepy, slowing reaction times and impairing coordination [6].

Historically, levels of drug driving have not been fully recorded, but research suggests that the scale of the problem may be similar to drink-driving. A study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that 18% of drivers and 16% of motorcyclists killed in road crashes had traces of illegal drugs in their system, the most common being cannabis [7]. It's been estimated 200 deaths a year may result from drug driving [8].

As of today (2 March 2015), it is an offence to drive with drugs in your body in England and Wales, regardless of whether impairment is proven. The offence carries a maximum six month jail sentence, maximum £5,000 fine, and automatic 12 month driving ban. Roadside drug testing devices will be used by police to catch drug drivers.

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can also impair your ability to drive safely, for instance by causing drowsiness or affecting reactions times, coordination, concentration or vision. These include some cough and cold medicines, anti-inflammatories, anti-histamines, antibiotics, antidepressants, epilepsy drugs and sleeping pills [9].

Brake’s advice 

  • Never risk taking illegal drugs and driving. Their effects are unpredictable, but research shows they can have a disastrous impact on your ability to drive safely. Drugs and alcohol is an especially deadly combination.
  • It is impossible to judge how impaired you are or if a friend is impaired, so if you or a mate has been taking drugs, you should assume you're unfit to drive, even if you feel okay.
  • The effects of drugs can last a long time. They can also badly disrupt sleep and make you a risk behind the wheel for days as a result. That's why you can't have illegal drugs and driving in your life at the same time without posing a danger to yourself and others.
  • When taking any medication you should always check the label to see if it could affect your ability to drive. If the label says your driving could be affected, it could make you drowsy, or not to drive if you feel drowsy, then assume you could be impaired and don't drive on it. If you are unsure if your medication could affect driving, consult your doctor or pharmacist. Never drive if the label or a health professional recommends you don't, or says you could be affected, or if you feel drowsy or slow.
  • If your medication affects your driving, stop driving, not your medication – make arrangements for alternative transport, or if you need to drive seek an alternative medication.


Brake is a national road safety charity that exists to stop the needless deaths and serious injuries that happen on roads every day, make streets and communities safer for everyone, and care for families bereaved and injured in road crashes. Brake promotes road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use, and effective road safety policies. We do this through national campaignscommunity education, services for road safety professionals and employers, and by coordinating the UK's flagship road safety event every November, Road Safety Week. Brake is a national, government-funded provider of support to families and individuals devastated by road death and serious injury, including through a helpline and support packs.

Brake was founded in the UK in 1995, and now has domestic operations in the UK and New Zealand, and works globally to promote action on road safety.

Follow Brake on Twitter or Facebook. Follow Julie Townsend on Twitter.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

End notes

[1] Public urged to speak out to stop the UK’s million drug drivers, Brake, 2014 http://www.brake.org.uk/news/1254-dl-drugdrive-aug14
[2] Driving under the influence of drugs: report from the expert panel on drug driving, Department for Transport, 2013
[3] Drivers clueless about dangers of over-the-counter drugs as hayfever season starts, Brake, 2014 http://www.brake.org.uk/news/1237-dlmedication-jun14
[4] A-Z of Drugs: Cannabis, Talk to Frank www.talktofrank.com 
[5] A-Z of Drugs: Cocaine, Ecstasy, Speed, Talk to Frank www.talktofrank.com 
[6] A-Z of Drugs: Heroin, Talk to Frank www.talktofrank.com 
[7] The Incidence of Drugs and Alcohol in Road Accident Fatalities, Transport Research Laboratory, 2000
[8] Driving under the influence of drugs: report from the expert panel on drug driving, Department for Transport, 2013
[9] State of the road: medication and driving, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland, 2011

Tags: sentencing drug-driving