‘Zero Tolerance’ Drug Driving Laws in Australia: A Gap Between Rationale and Form?


Legislation in all Australian states and territories creates offences and provides for police roadside testing in relation to ‘drug driving’. Ostensibly motivated by the same road safety objectives and impairment paradigm as drink driving laws, drug driving laws adopt a significantly different approach. Whereas random breath testing tests for all forms of alcohol and is designed to determine whether there is a sufficient concentration of alcohol in the driver’s body that s/he should be deemed to be impaired, random drug testing typically tests for the presence of any quantity of only the three most widely used illicit drugs—cannabis, methamphetamine and ecstasy—in the driver’s oral fluids, without reference to what is known about the different pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic qualities of different drugs. This article examines this idiosyncratic approach to the criminalisation of drug driving, highlighting its weak correlation with the important road safety objective of deterring substance-impaired driving, and the risks of both over- and under-criminalisation that it creates. It argues that public policy on the prohibition of certain drugs and the criminalisation of their use should be disentangled from public policy on impaired driving. It recommends that drug driving laws in all Australian jurisdictions should be brought back into line with drink driving laws, via legislation and testing practices that turn on substance-specific prescribed concentrations for all drugs (illicit and licit) that have the potential to impair drivers.

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Published: 2017-09-01
Pages:47 to 71
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How to Cite
Quilter, J. and McNamara, L. (2017) “‘Zero Tolerance’ Drug Driving Laws in Australia: A Gap Between Rationale and Form?”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 6(3), pp. 47-71. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.v6i3.416.

Author Biographies

Julia Quilter is an Associate Professor and member of the Legal Intersections Research Centre, School of Law, University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research focuses on criminal law and criminal justice issues, including alcohol-related violence, one punch laws, public order, homelessness, fines & sexual violence.

University of New South Wales

Professor Luke McNamara is Co-Director of the Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, Australia. His current research examines the patterns, drivers, modalities and effects of criminalisation as a public policy tool, with a focus on regulation of behaviours and activities in public places.