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How King's have made roads safer from drink- and drug-drivers in England and Wales

The strength of our forensic science and analytical toxicology researchers has proven influential in our understanding of road safety. Our academics and scientists have a long and committed history of working with the Department for Transport (DfT) Drink and Drug Driving Policy Unit, improving road safety policy to be in line with King’s cutting-edge science.

One example is found in the contributions to the ‘fit to drive’ scheme for re-licensing high-risk drink-drive offenders (HROs). Re-licensing historically assessed someone’s alcohol consumption using liver function tests (LFTs), but they were prone to detecting non-alcoholic liver diseases. Since 2006, King’s researchers have been working with the DfT and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to create better assessments. Professor Kim Wolff found that the liver protein CDT (Carbohydrate Deficient Transferrin) was a more accurate indicator of heavy drinking than LFTs in HROs. In 2014, the DVLA mandated the CDT test in the relicensing scheme for England and Wales.

As drink-driving has consistently served as a policy priority for the DfT in successive governments, drug-driving has proven more problematic. Though long criminalised, the scope for prosecuting and punishing drug-driving offences has long paled in comparison to drink-driving. This was due to the lack of objective tests to detect drug impaired driving and a lack of consensus with regards to the extent to which different drugs could impair drivers. However, the DfT has responded to this omission within the last decade with policy informed by King’s researchers.

Professor Wolff was appointed as chair of the DfT’s new expert technical panel in 2013-14. The panel was tasked with creating a systematic review for different drugs that could explain their impact on driving and inform consistent drug-driving legislation and guidelines.

Led by Professor Wolff, colleagues working with forensic providers and the Home Office worked to create a systematic review of the evidence. Overall, 17 drugs (listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971) including 9 medicinal controlled and 8 illegal drugs or metabolites were confirmed to be unsafe for driving. This report was the scientific basis for the UK’s first strict liability drug-driving offence, which became law in March 2015. A report from the Ministry of Justice highlighted the report’s success, showing a 19% increase in defendants prosecuted between 2018 (10,200) and 2019 (12,100).

The report has already proven influential to policymakers. It has been used to update drug-driving advice in the latest Orange Guidelines from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) Orange Guidelines – an important point of reference for healthcare profession working in addiction.

The European Transport Safety Council have used King’s researchers to help formulate the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) report for cannabis and driving, as well as reports designed to inform debates on drug-driving within the European Parliament. Professor Wolff has also personally contributed to many symposiums in Europe that raise awareness for drug-driving. Professor Wolff’s work at King’s has been vital to establishing the UK as a policy leader on drug-driving.

After establishing new policy, the next logical step to enhance the new Section 5A (Road Traffic Act, 1988) has been solving the confirmatory test dilemma. Whole blood, required for evidential tests, cannot be currently performed at the roadside by police officers, while faster alternatives cannot provide quantitative results that can be used for court prosecutions.

Professor Wolff was invited to chair another expert panel on improving roadside drug testing with colleagues from King’s and Queen Mary University. This led to King’s researchers being funded by the Home Office to develop and characterise synthetic oral fluid (saliva) as an alternative to blood.

These scientific developments have been vital in developing roadside drugs test that aim to improve the speed of collection of evidential tests, which should increase prosecution rates. Based on the findings of this research, King’s successfully bid (March 2022) to provide standard drug solutions in synthetic oral fluid to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (MOD) for type approval of road-side drug testing devices.

Most recently, King’s has led on the proposal for a new High-Risk Offender Scheme for drug-driving to work in tandem with the High-Risk Offender scheme for drink-drivers. Professor Wolff led a six-person expert panel at the DfT’s request, submitting a report which recommended a framework to be operationalised by the DVLA, and criteria for who should be considered for the scheme. As of January 2021, the report has been signed off by the DfT and is currently out for consultation (April 2022), with a public call for evidence to create a drug-driver HRO scheme. This shows King’s commitment to play a key role in road safety policy.

Her knowledge especially in the area of drug and drink driving has been pivotal in the formulation of our policies in relation to driver licensing.– The DVLA on Professor Wolff (2021)

The influence of King’s research is hard to overstate. Its longstanding relationship with the DfT to continuously influence road safety policy in a national and international context is a primary exemplar of how academia can meaningfully engage with government policy making.

In this story

Kim Wolff

Kim Wolff

Director King's Forensics