Drug drivers – a risk on the European roads that draws increased concern

30 April 2024 — Daniela GHETU
Drug drivers – a risk on the European roads that draws increased concern

In Austria, the probability of meeting a drug driver on the road is high. A recent study shows a further increase in drug drivers by at least 23% in the last twelve months. Yet, only around 3% of them were reported as such, an articles published by the Austrian Association of Insurers (VVO) reads.

Drug driving is an issue of interest also for insurers. “Most people would agree that those convicted of drink or drug-driving offences should be excluded from insurance cover as a deterrent. But do the same exclusions apply to those driving under the legal limit for alcohol or taking prescription drugs?” an article published by Mathews Comfort, an Oxford-based independent insurance broker. In many motor insurance policies an exclusion is provided for the case of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs to a level which would be an offence in the country where the accident occurs. As such, many insurers will provide cover for claim in case the driver’s consumption of drinks or drugs were “under the limit”. However, even so, having on the record a drug and drunk driving case, will affect the future insurability of a driver, or at least the price of his/hers insurance policy. While drunk driving is a rather settled issue, as most countries have a total prohibition policy with regard getting behind the wheel under influence, the drug driving situation is a little more nuanced.

“Prevalence of drugs in traffic is becoming more apparent in recent years. The share of persons driving under the drugs influence in the general driving population is estimate between 2 – 5% based o roadside checks and self-report survey data. On some days and times (e.g. weekend, holidays, nights etc.) this share can increase to an estimated 27% on average,” the European Commission study “Prevention of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs” reads. However, the related legislation is not fully aligned across Europe. Not all countries perform drug checks in case of accidents, not all countries are considering the same list of drugs and the same limits. So, there is still work to do to fully understand, measure and mitigate the drug driving risk.

Coming back to the Austrian example, exactly 8,676 people were reported by law enforcement to be under the influence of drugs in traffic last year. However, even this impressive number is just the tip of the iceberg, as the “dark field study on drugs” by the Board of Trustees for Road Safety (KFV) shows. According to this, 5% of those surveyed (n=1,004) drove a car in the past twelve months even though they were under the influence of drugs. The overall figure may be extrapolated to around 250,000 people in Austria. Since a comparative study in 2021, the number of drug users has increased by 23% (2021: 204,000 people). “Drugs on the roads are a massive safety risk. Efficient measures exist, they must be implemented actively and forcefully in Austria,” says KFV director Mag. Christian Schimanofsky.

In Vienna, since the last survey in 2021, the number of drug users has increased from 50,000 to 75,000 people in 2023. In Lower Austria there was an increase from 40,000 to 52,000 people and in the center-south region (Styria, Carinthia, Burgenland) the number of drug traffickers even doubled from 25,000 to 52,000 people. In the West region (Salzburg, Tyrol, Vorarlberg), however, there was a slight overall decline from 35,000 to 28,000 people. In Upper Austria the trend is also pointing slightly downwards after a decline from 55,000 to 42,000 people, but the numbers remain at a level that is far too high. There is also a significant increase among women: While there were 35,000 female drug drivers on Austrian roads in the comparative study in 2021, the number has more than doubled to 90,000 in 2023. For men, the already high initial figure from 2021 was increased from 160,000 drug users to 169,000 in 2023.

The procedure for traffic controls is rather complex in Austria. While saliva tests allow identifying drug driving, they are considered not reliable enough to allow convicting the drug drivers, especially that the law requires proof that not only the driver of drugs consumption, but of the actual impairment of the ability to drive, which is determined by means of a medical report, thus a lengthy and more complex procedure.

“While in Germany, Switzerland and almost all other countries in Europe the detection of a drug in saliva has long been the basis for criminal liability, in Austria it is much more complicated,” VVO said. “The KFV calls for the increased use of suitable saliva pre-test devices as well as the use of saliva, which is to be evaluated in the laboratory, as an evidentiary basis for sanctions for drugs in traffic.” According to the KFV, a saliva sample should in future serve as proof of the presence of drugs in the body, which is then evaluated in a laboratory after it has been taken. No medical staff is necessary for on-site acceptance. “For example, for grid squares, the evaluation can be carried out directly on site in a mobile drug analysis laboratory, similar to that in Italy. This means that the reliable saliva result is available in just 60 to 90 minutes,” explains Mag. Raffaela Neustifter, psychologist and traffic expert at the KFV, quoted by the VVO website. Such a mobile laboratory, which the KFV brought to Austria for demonstration purposes, is now also required by the KFV for Austria. The mobile laboratory contains analytical devices, laboratory instruments and computers.