Why is the Bracks government sticking with a world-first roadside drug test that’s controversial, expensive, and will make Victorian motorists only marginally safer? JAMES MORROW crunches the numbers and finds that there are plenty of good reasons why no other government on Earth has gone near this scheme
When Ballarat truckie John De Jong was publicly humiliated for driving while under the influence of drugs – and then let off the hook (without so much as an apology, incidentally) when it turned out he was innocent – by the Victoria Police last year, it was widely assumed that the much-hyped roadside drug testing program that nabbed him would be allowed to die a quiet death. But instead of learning the potentially expensive lesson of De Jong’s case, Steve Bracks’ state government has pressed ahead with the program. And even though the police say they’ve changed their ways so that fewer innocent people will get caught in their net, a closer look at the program reveals that Victorian taxpayers are still being asked to sacrifice a lot of their own time and money for a program with highly speculative results.
“One in 100 drivers found taking drugs” screamed the headlines when Victoria’s police finally lifted the lid on their controversial roadside drug testing program a few weeks ago. The state’s roads, went the implication, were choc-a-block with stoned ravers and speed-addled truckies: according to the police, around one in every hundred drivers tested by the program were found to have either THC, the active ingredient in marijuana or methamphetamines (or some combination of the two) in their system. Amazingly, this number was proportionally far greater than the number of motorists caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, a legal and readily-available product: As Melbourne’s Age noted in its report on the revived program, “the yearly average strike rate for motorists caught drink-driving is about one in every 250 tested”.
Yet no one asked the question, could these new numbers for drugged drivers really be correct?
The famous American bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” came the succinct reply, and it’s hard to fault that logic. To arrive at these incredible 1-in-100 numbers, the sort of headline-grabbing figures that would not only consign John De Jong’s case to ancient history but win an extension of the program from the state parliament when it comes up for review later this year, it’s clear that the cops went the Willie Sutton route.
In fact, despite initial claims that these numbers were arrived at largely by “random” methods, Victoria’s scare-story numbers were almost entirely the product of some very selective targeting. At one operation, targeting the New Year’s Day Summerdayze dance festival, almost one out of every ten drivers tested positive. It’s not clear how many drivers were pulled over on their way out of Summerdayze (the police won’t reveal such operational details about that or any other sting), but it’s easy to see how, in choosing this sort of venue, Victorian cops had an easy opportunity to up the numbers supporting this program.
Do the math: Imagine that, say, fifty drivers were stopped in one night’s operation, and five of them tested positive – an extraordinary result, ten times that of the general population, but not at all unthinkable. If we take these statistical outliers out of the rest of the numbers, things become clearer: Stopping those other 1,450 other drivers would have led to just ten hits, cutting the overall success rate to just .68 of one percent.
Now on one level it makes sense that if you want to catch people who are taking drugs, go to the sort of places where they hang out and party. (Though whether or not the time and effort spent sitting outside a dance festival could not have been more profitably spent patrolling the roads for dangerous driving is another question). But it is also ridiculous on its face for Victoria’s police to suggest that because cops managed to get a one percent strike rate through highly selective targeting, then one out of every hundred cars one sees on Victoria’s roads is being driven by someone under the influence of drugs.
This would be the equivalent of saying that, say, the number of drunks on the road on New Year’s Eve is the same as those out there on any other evening. Furthermore, while it may be tempting to compare testing for stoners and drunks, the procedure for administering these saliva tests are a good deal more invasive than simply asking a driver to blow into a tube. A driver who gets stopped in by one of these sweeps is asked to put a saliva collector in his or her mouth, and then wait five minutes for the results to come back. (And refusal is not an option, but rather carries with it the presumption of on-the-spot guilt). If the sample comes back negative, the driver is free to go; otherwise, they have to produce a second sample, which, if it turns up positive, is then sent to a lab for further analysis by more accurate tests. In the meantime, then, they have to wait for up to three weeks to find out if they will be prosecuted for an offence.
And not only is the test more involved and time-consuming for the (at least) 99 out of 100 drivers who are guilty of nothing but who are still compelled to sit by the side of the road for five minutes waiting to see if they will become the next John De Jong, unlike breathalyzers, with these drug tests there’s far less link between a positive result and actual driving impairment. That’s because these tests can pick up drugs taken long before the driver got behind the wheel – thus a joint smoked on a Friday, while illegal, would likely not impair a driver Saturday. And isn’t the point of this whole program road safety?
So why did the Victorian cops decide to go down this route and become, as they proudly proclaim in all their literature, the first po
lice department in the entire world to set up this sort of roadside drug-testing regime? Beyond the basic motive force that causes any bureaucracy to seek as many good headlines as possible while expending as little effort as possible, much of the justification seems to come from work done by Dr. Olaf H. Drummer of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, and especially a presentation he gave to the Australasian Association of Clinical Biochemists in 2004.
The presentation was sponsored by BioMediq Pty. Ltd., the Doncaster, Vic.-based agent for the UK company that makes the Cozart Rapiscan – the same test that snared truckie De Jong. In his talk, Drummer talked about the various ways drugged drivers can be a danger on the road (no argument here), but then drew the rather long bow that by spending $1 million to Rapiscan 10,000 Victorian drivers, the state could save a $15 million. As Drummer’s PowerPoint noted, this represents a “Cost benefit ration 15:1 ! [sic]”.
But there are a couple of problems with Drummer’s study. For one thing, the arithmetic behind the purported $15 million savings feels like it was concocted in a trendy outcomes-based grade school maths classroom: it’s not whether the answer is right or wrong that is important, but rather that everyone feels good about the result. Drummer’s presentation states that “If drug testing and wider police enforcement reduces use of drugs and driving by … 5%” (italics added), the “reduction in drug use saves potentially $15 million” (again, italics added). Yet if 10,000 people were tested, and fully 1 percent of them were on drugs as police statistics imply (i.e., the entire program took 100 drivers), it is hard to figure how that handful of drug-takers could wreak $15 million worth of damage.
|Who needs a roadside drug test when for some motorists their faces are a dead giveaway? Californian woman Penny Wood traded her privacy for reduced prison time on traffic and petty crime misdemeanours, by agreeing to let police publicise her mugshot as a warning about the ravages of five years’ methamphetamine abuse.|
In other words, roadside drug testing could save lives and money; on the other hand, it might not. Since the only sub-stances the current test looks for are pot and speed, then it stands to reason that the smart – well, if not smart, than at least cagey – drug abuser who was looking to get behind the wheel would simply switch to a different poison. Already this seems to be happening, as a quick scan of posts on forums hosted by inthemix.com.au, an Australian dance party website, suggests.
(“We need to send out decoys,” one participant jokingly suggested amidst the debate. “The first car (which has a straight driver of course) that leaves in each convoy from the party puts drops in their eyes to cause their eyes to dilate, then drives in an erratic manner to attract attention, the cops then pull them over, see their huge eyes then perform the test on them. During this time, the remainder of the crew slip past. Once the test is complete and passed, everyone goes on their merry way.”)
Victoria’s drivers are used to getting ripped off when they get behind the wheel. Recall that last year, that the state government had to refund $14 million dollars to some 90,000 motorists incorrectly fined by speed cameras on Melbourne’s Western Ring Road, and spend a further $6 million compensating drivers for hardship when their licenses were incorrectly taken from them by dodgy technology – again, of course, all in the name of safety.
Amazingly (especially considering the embarrassment of John De Jong’s case) Victoria’s police seem more than happy to once again let technology do their work for them, rather than get out on the roads and into the public transport system and look to stop unsafe or criminal behaviour in progress. In the process, Victorians will be forced to give up another little bit of their time and freedom, all in the inarguable name of safety.
And that represents one of the biggest, yet most under-reported, problems with the whole program: while roadside drug testing may pull a few stoners off the road, it also represents yet another small erosion in the personal liberty of all Australians (New South Wales is considering a similar program at the moment, and it is unlikely to stay confined within Victoria’s borders). Part of the tradeoff of living in a free society is that people are willing to take on a bit more risk in return for having a government that, as much as possible leaves people alone to make their own decisions and go about their business.
Australia is not, and should not become, one of those societies where cops and other agents of the state have the power to question and detain people without reasonable cause; that’s the sort of thing many Aussies (or their parents or grandparents) came here to get away from.
While the pain of losing a friend or relative to an auto accident is, of course, incalculable, there is very little indication that an expensive drug-testing regime for motorists will do much more than cause a hassle, heartache, and ultimately further embarrassment for the Victorian government.