Fifteen years ago, at midnight on December 1, Queensland became the fourth state in Australia to introduce Roadside Drug Testing (RDT).
Prior to this, the only way of identifying drug drivers was through blood samples taken at a hospital from drivers either involved in crashes or exhibiting signs of being adversely affected by drugs rather than alcohol.
The new technology was a game changer, enabling police officers to detect the presence of cannabis, methylamphetamine or ecstasy with a quick swab of a driver’s tongue by the side of the road.
Acting Sergeant Lorenzo Ricato, Program Officer with Road Policing Group’s Specialist Programs, said the equipment, methodology and training had continued to improve over the years.
“We have gone from roadside tests that took eight minutes down to five minutes, then three minutes and now only two minutes to get a positive or negative result,” Acting Sergeant Ricato said.
“In December 2007, we had 12 officers trained to use the equipment, and now there are 1,100 officers across the state, ranging from Highway Patrol officers to General Duties police.
“Police conduct up to 50,000 RDTs per year, with about one in four tests returning a positive result.”
RDTs are conducted using the Securetec Drug Wipe II Twin, which can detect the presence of one or more of the three relevant drugs with a simple tongue swab.
If the reading is positive, the driver is taken for further testing at the roadside or at a police station using the Draeger Drug Test 5000.
This part of the process takes longer as more saliva is required, and the presence of drugs – either illegal or prescription – may affect a person’s ability to produce saliva.
Once collected, the saliva sample is split in two, with police analysing one portion onsite using the Draeger Drug Test 5000, and the second portion sent to Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services (QHFSS) for analysis.
If the result from the Draeger test is positive, the driver will have their licence suspended for 24 hours. Prosecution against the driver is commenced either at the roadside or upon receipt of a certificate of analysis from QHFSS.
To be qualified to conduct RDTs, police undergo a three-day face-to-face training program.
The course covers the use, care and maintenance of the Securetec Drug Wipe II Twin and the Draeger Drug Test 5000, as well as legislation.
The final day includes working alongside an experienced operator conducting real tests on the road.
A police officer for 31 years, 12 as a Highway Patrol officer, and 10 with the Roadside Drug Testing Unit, Acting Sergeant Ricato said testing drivers for drugs was substantially different from testing for alcohol.
“With the Roadside Breath Test (RBT), you are measuring the concentration of alcohol, and drivers are charged if they are over the legal limit.
“With RDTs, you are testing for the presence of drugs. These are illegal substances, and they shouldn’t be present in a person’s saliva in any concentration.”
Acting Sergeant Ricato said while the test did not measure a level or concentration, it did differentiate between the different drugs.
“Most commonly, we will find methylamphetamine or THC, which is the psychoactive component of cannabis, however sometimes we find both or even all three drugs present.
“In some instances, returning a positive RDT sample can be a critical turning point, and police regularly provide referrals to support services for people who wish to make positive changes in their lives.”
Acting Sergeant Ricato said that just as the equipment had changed over the past 15 years, so too had the strategies police use to detect drug drivers.
“The message is that nobody should believe that simply looking and acting ‘normal’ is enough to prevent you from getting tested.
“Most of the people who test negative to an RDT say it’s a good thing that police are drug testing drivers to make the roads safer for all road users.
“Road safety is such an important part of policing. In Queensland we have vast road networks, and every police officer should spend as much time as they can focussing on reducing road trauma.
“This can include everything from talking to kids at school about wearing seatbelts to intercepting drivers for RDTs.”