Drugs & Alcohol

Drug and alcohol abuse is a major problem on UK roads where drivers are being tested for both and found wanting on a huge scale. Unfortunately, drug driving in some areas of the UK is also becoming more prevalent than incidents of drink driving.


The provisional central estimate of the number of deaths in accidents where at least one driver was found over the alcohol limit during 2019 was 280. This represents about 16% of all deaths in reported road accidents in 2019. The 95% confidence range indicates that it can be 95% certain that the true figure is between 240 and 320 fatalities for 2019. The final figures will be available in August 2021.


In 2019, there was a 19 per cent increase in the number of prosecutions for driving whilst under the influence of controlled drugs above the specified limit. The figure rose from 10,200 prosecutions in 2018 to 12,100 in 2019, and it is certain this figure will undoubtedly rise.

Dealing with drink and drug offenders comes under the Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988 at Section 5 (drink) and Section 5A (drugs). Both sections are reproduced below.

Driving & Being in Charge of a Vehicle 

Section 5 of the Road Trafic Act (RTA) 1988 clearly states that driving or being in charge of a vehicle with alcohol concentration above the prescribed limit has no defence.

A person who drives or attempts to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, or is in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, after consuming so much alcohol that the proportion of it in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit is guilty of an offence.

In relation to being in charge of a motor vehicle, a person is not guilty if he proves that the circumstances were such that there was no likelihood of his driving the vehicle whilst the proportion of alcohol in his breath, blood or urine exceeded the prescribed limit.

Again section 5A the Road Trafic Act 1988 states that driving, attempting to drive or being in charge of a motor vehicle with a specified controlled drug in the blood or urine in excess of the specified limit for that drug. It is a summary only offence that came into force on 2 March 2015. It brings enforcement of drug driving into line with that of drink driving, by introducing a strict liability offence to avoid the need to prove impairment. It seeks to enable more effective law enforcement to take place, with the aim of improving road safety by deterring potential drug drivers and bringing more drug drivers to justice.

A ‘controlled drug’ is stated at s.11 RTA 1988 to have the meaning given by s.2 Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. A “controlled drug” is any substance or product for the time being specified in Part I, II or III of Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Section 5A(1)(b) and (2) RTA 1988 provides for an offence of driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with a proportion of a specified controlled drug above the specified limit.

The penalties for Drink Driving are as follows:

Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink

You may get:

  • 6 months’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a driving ban for at least 1 year (3 years if convicted twice in 10 years)

Refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis

You may get:

  • 6 months’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a ban from driving for at least 1 year

Causing death by careless or dangerous driving when under the influence of drink

You may get:

  • 14 years’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a ban from driving for at least 2 years
  • an extended driving test before your licence is returned

There is also an offence of causing death by careless driving when unfit through drink.

Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink

You may get:

  • 3 months’ imprisonment
  • up to £2,500 fine
  • a possible driving ban
Other problems facing drivers

A conviction for drink driving also means:

  • your car insurance costs will increase significantly
  • you will most likely lose your job
  • you may have trouble travelling to countries like the USA

You should be aware that similar offences to those described for drinking would also be committed where drugs are concerned.

Driving, attempting to drive, or being in charge of a motor vehicle when unfit through the taking of drugs, will result in automatic disqualification, may result in imprisonment and the award of between three to eleven penalty points.

The penalties upon conviction of drug driving are severe, they include:

  • A minimum 12-month minimum driving ban
  • Up to 6 months in prison
  • An unlimited fine
  • A DG10 driving licence endorsement (remains on licence for 11 years)

Causing death by careless or dangerous driving when under the influence of drugs

You may get:

  • 14 years’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a ban from driving for at least 2 years
Other consequences may include:
  • increased car insurance premiums
  • possible job loss and/or financial problems that may occur
  • relying on public transport, friends or family to get to places
  • you may have trouble travelling to countries like the USA

Prescription Drugs

If a member of staff, especially drivers or those working with machinery, is taking prescription medication, these must be disclosed and a letter from the workers GP should be made available to the company noting what medication is being prescribed, the quantities and any side effects that may occur. Confirmation from the workers GP that he/she is able to drive or operate machinery should also be confirmed.

Notification to the Traffic Commissioners Office

With effect from March 2019, operators and transport managers now have to notify the TC’s office of any driver who has failed a drug or alcohol test. The results of notification will mean that the driver is requested to attend a driver hearing with the Traffic Commissioner, whereupon he or she will most likely lose their vocational driving licence and face other penalties associated with this, including a financial penalty. 

Once the driving ban has been served, there's no guarantee you'll get your vocational licence back. The TC may request you to re-take your goods or passenger driving test again, or, subject to the seriousness of the offence in question, suspend your licence indefinitely.

What happens in the body if you mix drugs and alcohol?

Alcohol is a depressant. Combine it with a stimulant, such as cocaine, and the two drugs compete with each other. The depressant drug tries to slow the brain/central nervous system down, while the stimulant tries to speed it up – putting your brain/central nervous system under great pressure.

Combine alcohol with another depressant drug, heroin for example, and the effect they each have of slowing your central nervous system will be multiplied, and you risk your body shutting down altogether.

With no quality control in the world of illegal drugs, you can never be 100% sure of exactly what is in the substance you are taking. It could be ‘cut’ with other cheaper drugs such as tranquilisers or even toxic substances such as drain cleaner. Add alcohol into the mix and you have a potentially lethal cocktail.

A common but particularly dangerous partnership, alcohol and cocaine together increase the risk of heart attacks and fits and even sudden death. The two drugs interact to produce a highly toxic substance in your liver called cocaethylene. It can increase the depressive effects of alcohol, making your reaction to cocaine stronger. You are also more likely to be aggressive with cocaethylene in your system. 

Cocaethylene takes longer to get out of your system than either alcohol or cocaine, subjecting your heart and liver to a longer period of stress. Mixing alcohol and cocaine can be fatal up to 12 hours after you have taken it.

If you are under the influence of drugs, you are less likely to make considered decisions about how much alcohol you drink. Therefore, you also put yourself at risk of alcohol poisoning and longer-term health effects of alcohol such as heart disease and cancer.

Taking alcohol with any of the drugs illegally available will have varying effects on the human body and will vary from person to person.

It should also be noted that as of changes made by the newly appointed Traffic Commissioner, any driver found under the influence of drink or drugs during a roadside check must be notified to the office within 28 days if the result was positive.

Many perscription drug and medicines for colds, hay fever and flu that can be bought without a prescription at the chemists may also cause unwanted drowsiness. Clearly, this has implications for your safety and that of other road users.

When you go to the doctor for medication, you should mention that you drive for a living and ask about the medication’s side effects and the use of possible alternatives. Never mix alcohol with medication.

Every transport company should have an active drug and alcohol program in place?

The benefits of doing so are a big reflection on how you run your business. An employee having an accident and then found to have either drugs or alcohol in their system could potentially be very damaging to you and your company.

How is drug and alcohol testing carried out?

For alcohol, most companies offering these services will use a breath test machine similar to the one the police use.

For drug testing, the easiest and least intrusive methods of drug testing are saliva and sweat.


A sample is taken using a simple swab, which is moved around the mouth, cheeks and under the tongue. This usually takes approximately 30 seconds to soak up a sufficient amount of saliva needed for testing. The machine used by some testing companies and some police forces is the Dräger Drug Test 5000 analytical unit. The sample is placed in the analysis unit and the machine will give an indication if drugs are present or not. The process of analysis takes approximately 8 minutes because of Cannabis (THC), which takes the longest time to return a result.


The sample to be analysed in this test is taken from the fingertips. The person being tested presses every finger and both thumbs in turn onto a pad and holds each digit in place for 5 seconds. The sample is then placed into the Intelligent Fingerprint Analyser, with the result being returned in approximately 8 minutes. If testing a number of personnel you can test a batch of up to six samples by confirming this on the Analytical Unit, which will return all 6-sample results in approximately 15 minutes.

The accuracy for both units noted above is high – 95%.

There are a number of other different testing methods, such as blood, urine and hair. All of these methods require laboratory testing and you could wait up to a week or more for the results.

The following downloadable documents or websites should be read or visited in conjunction with these subjects.

Ignition Alcolocks

HSE – Drugs & Alcohol