She’ll be right, I’ll Drive!
Following the tragic Boxing Day accident that claimed the lives of the family of ‘Home and Away’ star Jessica Falkholt, which has left Jessica in a critical condition at St George Hospital, many debates and arguments have been sparked regarding the continuing issue of drug driving on New South Wales roads.
Craig Whitall, the driver of the vehicle which collided with the Falkholt family on the Princes Highway near Ulladulla, was reported to have been driving home from a Nowra Methadone clinic, and was killed instantly upon impact. Police have commented that Mr Whitall was “well-known” to the authorities, had an extensive criminal history, and had been previously incarcerated for driving while disqualified. At the time of the accident, Mr Whitall had only recently got his licence back and was on the road for a short period of time thereafter.
The issue of whether Mr Whitall was on methadone or any other drugs at the time of the impact will form a part of the coronial investigation into this matter. New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burns has also commented on this incident, stating that people under the influence of methadone should not be on the road.
The social welfare and economic costs associated with the use of heroin and other illicit opioid substances are significant for both individuals and the greater Australian community, and also have a range of adverse outcomes stemming from their use, including overdose, death, and the spread of various infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C.
Providing a range of accessible treatments for heroin and other illicit substance users through the use of methadone or buprenorphine programs provides for a reduction in the demand for such illicit drugs, and minimises many of the associated negative impacts with the use of such substances.
Under section 8 of the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966 (NSW), methadone is listed as a schedule eight substance, which classes the drug as one that is addiction producing or potentially addiction producing. With this, the possession, supply, prescription and use of schedule eight substances are strictly limited.
While there are several positive reasons in favour of the methadone program, the real grey area in the context of motoring is that, as stated by Roads Minister Melinda Pavey, it is currently not illegal to drive on New South Wales roads with methadone in your system, although it is illegal to drive whilst
‘under the influence’ of methadone.
To add to this, the Clinical Guidelines and Procedures for the Use of Methadone, published by the Federal Government, states that practitioners should provide patients with information with the nature of methadone treatment, associated side effects, and the potential impact of methadone on their capacity to operate machinery or driver, amongst other factors. Notwithstanding this, there is no solid rule that prevents methadone users from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle after treatment, taking into consideration that different patients are prescribed different doses of methadone. Ultimately, the discretion as to whether a patient is in a fit and proper condition drive a vehicle rests with the patient themselves, who is at the time on methadone.
The law with respect to drug driving needs serious review. The question that should be asked by law enforcement authorities is not what drugs a driver has in their system, but whether the amount of those drugs impair the driver’s ability to properly operate a vehicle, and retain a reasonable focus on all possible roadside hazards. Evidence-based laws already exist for drink driving in New South Wales, which accurately indicate that certain ranges of blood alcohol concentrations constitute a distinct class of drink driving offence, and the laws with regard to drug driving should reflect a similar approach.
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