Drink/Drugs

Driving is the most dangerous activity that most of us carry out in our daily lives

Driving is the most dangerous activity that most of us carry out in our daily lives

Research indicates that about 150 people are killed and seriously injured every week in crashes involving someone who was driving, riding or otherwise using road for work.

HSE Guidelines for employers, “Driving at work”, sate that “health and safety law applies to on-the-road work activities as to all work activities and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety system”. So, employers must conduct suitable risk assessments and put in place all “reasonably practicable” measures to ensure that work related journeys are safer, staff are fit and are competent to drive safely and the vehicles used are fit for purpose and in a safe condition. Such measures will more than pay for themselves by reducing accident costs, many of which (e.g. lost staff time, administration costs) will be uninsured.

Drinking and Driving

Around 250 people are killed and over 1,200 seriously injured in drink drive crashes each year. Often it is an innocent person who suffers, not the driver who is over the drink drive limit. Around 120 pedestrians are killed or seriously injured by drink drivers each year, as are about 20 pedal cyclists, 240 motorcyclist and over 500 car passengers. Around 60 children are killed or seriously injured by drink drivers annually. The legal drink and drive limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. However the risk of crashing increases at alcohol levels well below the legal limit. Drivers with a blood alcohol level between 20 mg/100 ml and 50 mg/100ml are three times more likely to be killed in a crash than drivers who have no alcohol in their blood. For drivers with a blood alcohol level between 50 mg/ 100ml and 80 mg/100ml (still below the legal limit), the risk is at least six times greater, and it rises to 11 times with an alcohol level between 80 mg/100ml and 100 mg/100ml. A driver who is double the legal limit is 50 times more likely to be in a fatal crash. Every year, about 90,000 people are convicted of drinking and driving, and face a driving ban of at least 12 months, a large fine and possible imprisonment. It is also an offence to be unfit to drive through drink, even if below the legal limit, or drugs. The penalties are same as for the “over the limit” drink offence. Alcohol impairs judgement, making drivers over-confident and more likely to take risks. It slows their reactions, increases stopping distances, affects judgement of speed and distance and reduced the field of vision. Even a small amount, well below the legal limit, seriously affects the ability to drive safely.

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly, but it takes about an hour for 1 unit to be removed by a healthy liver. The exact number of units of alcohol in a drink depends on it size and alcoholic strength by volume (abv). For example, a 175ml glass of wine 12%abv would be 2.1 units, and a 250ml glass of the same wine would be 3 units. Drinkers cannot be sure how much alcohol they are consuming because the alcoholic strength of drink varies enormously, as does the size of measures.  In pubs, cars and restaurants a glass of wine could be 175ml or 250ml, bottles and cans are different sizes and spirits could be 25ml or 35ml measures. Drinks poured at home are usually larger than ones bought in a pub or restaurant. It is also difficult to know the alcoholic strength of a drink without seeing the bottle. The speed with which alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream also varies depending on a person’s size, age, weight and gender and whether they have eaten. The same amount of alcohol will give different blood alcohol levels in different people.

Never rely on trying to calculate accurately how much alcohol is in your body, and whether you are above or below the drink drive limit.

Morning after- Many drink drivers are caught the morning after they have been drinking. As it takes several hours for alcohol to disappear from the body, someone who was drinking late the pervious evening could easily still be over the limit on their way to work the next morning. Even if under the limit, they must be affected by the alcohol in their body.

Medicines and Drugs – Driving while unfit through drugs, whether illegal or prescribed or over-the-counter medicines  is an offence that carries the same penalties as drink driving. The Police can, and do, conduct roadside tests to help them assess whether a driver may be impaired.

Illegal Drugs – Around 40 people are killed each year in accidents involving drivers who were impaired by drugs (including legal drugs), over 200 are seriously injured and almost 650 slightly injured. However this is likely to be an under-estimate.

Around 18% of people killed in road crashers have traces of illegal drugs in their blood, with cannabis being the most common. Drugs can affect a driver’s behaviour and body in a variety of ways (depending on the drug). These can include:

  • Slower reactions
  • Poor concentration and confused thinking
  • Distorted perception
  • Over confidence, resulting in taking unnecessary risks
  • Poor co-ordination
  • Erratic behaviour
  • Aggression, panic attacks or paranoia
  • Blurred vision
  • Tremors, dizziness, cramps
  • Severe fatigue.

The effects can last for hours or even days, and vary from person to person. They can be difficult or an individual to detect.

Medicines – For many medications it is difficult to predict whether, how, when and for how long they will affect a person’s ability to drive safely. A driver may not even notice that they have been impaired until it is too late. The effects depend on how much, how often and how medicine is used, plus the psychological and physical attributes of the person taking it. Some medicines may cause:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling edgy, angry or aggressive
  • Feeling nauseous or otherwise unwell
  • Reduced coordination , including shaking
  • Feeling unstable

A person’s driving ability can also be affected by the medical condition for which they are taking medicine. Many over-the- counter medicines, including remedies for coughs, colds, flu and hay fever cause unwanted drowsiness which might impair driving.  Warning about drowsiness are not always clear so, for example, if the label says “may cause drowsiness”, assume it will do so.

Alcohol and Drugs – Taking alcohol and drugs together is even worse as their effects combine and impairment can be multiplied. Even low levels of alcohol mixed with low levels of drugs can cause significant impairment.

What employers should do: This leaflet gives simple advice on how employers and line managers can help to ensure that their staff do not drive when affected by alcohol, drugs and medicine. It can be used as a stand-alone policy or incorporated into your existing drug and alcohol policies and “Safer Driving for Work” policy.

Review your workplace drug and alcohol policy; Review your existing workplace drug and alcohol policy to see how it can encompass driving. Free guides are available from the HSE. “Drugs Misuse at Work” (www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg91.pdf) and “Don’t mix it: A guide for employers on alcohol at work (www.hse.gov.uk.pubns/indg240.htm ).

Consult Staff- Ensure that staff and/or safety representatives are fully consulted about the organisation’s policies on alcohol, drugs and safe driving and that this is reviewed periodically in joint health and safety committee meetings.

Expect safe driving- Ensure all staff, including directors and managers, understands that everyone who drives for work must be fit to do so all the time. All managers should lead by example and follow organisation’s policy.

Set Clear Rules – In particular, ensure that all staff, including senior managers and line managers understands that they must not drive for work if their ability to do so safely is affected by alcohol, drugs or medicines. Doing so should be a serious disciplinary matter. Do not allow alcohol (or drugs) to be consumed by staff on duty, even, for example, if they are entertaining clients. Advise staff not to drink at lunchtime especially if they are driving later. Remind them that it takes hours for the body to get rid of alcohol – they can still be impaired on their journey home or the following morning.

Provide Training – Organise “Drink and Drugs Awareness” seminars for staff. These should cover all the issues above and there are many training organisations that can provide that service. Train managers to recognise signs of possible alcohol or substance abuse. These include sudden mood or behaviour changes, unusual irritability or aggression, worsening relationships with colleagues and others, impaired job performance or an increase in poor time-keeping and short-term sickness absence. These signs do not necessarily mean a drink or drugs problem, but may be an indication that help is needed.

Be constructive- Treat staff with alcohol or drugs problems sympathetically and in confidence, no differently from staff with other problems. Offer access to medical or therapeutic help for staff who come forward with problems. Staff who feel that they are unfit to drive because they are affected by drugs or by alcohol consumed the previous night, should be able to declare this without being punished. However persistent instances should trigger disciplinary action. Give staff who report that they are unfit to drive because they are affected by medicines other duties and ask to them to consult their doctor or pharmacist for alternatives. If necessary, they should be signed of sick and the organisation’s sickness policy followed. Be alert to the risk of employees feeling under pressure not to take their medication (or the full dose) so they can continue to drive. The consequences could be just as serious.

Provide Alternatives- Do not provide alcohol, at lunch times (during meetings, for example). At office events or parties make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available, and if possible, organise transport home or overnight stops for staff who want to drink. Remind staff who are driving not to drink alcohol and if they are staying overnight, they may still be impaired the following morning.

Plan Safer Journeys – Alcohol, drugs and many medicines cause drowsiness and increase the chances of falling asleep at the wheel. Ensure that staff consider this when planning journeys.

Record and Investigate Crashed and Incidents – Require staff who are involved in a work-related crash, including damage-only incidents, to report it to their line manager. This enables, where practicable, an investigation to be conducted to determine whether the driver’s fitness was a contributory factor and what (if any) action is necessary to prevent repeat occurrences. Keep the organisation’s insurers informed.

Require Drivers to Notify Drink and Drug Related Offences – Require drivers who have been cautioned, summoned or convicted in relation to drug or alcohol offences to inform their line manager so that a discussion can take place about whether they need help to ensure that they do not drive while impaired.

Conduct Screening Tests – Some organisations conduct screening tests for alcohol or drug misuse, either on a random basis for all staff, as a part of recruitment or if there is a reason to suspect a particular individual may have a problem. Screening raises many civil liberties issues and is only likely to be effective if developed in careful consultation with staff and their representatives and makes a demonstrable contribution to reducing risks. It should lead to help being provided for anyone with a problem, and be seen as a deterrent rather than a method of “catching employees”. It is important to ensure that staff are aware that screening may take place and consent to it; therefore, this should be written into contracts of employment (again in consultation with staff and their representatives).

Monitor and Review – Managers should discuss at-work driving, including the issue of drink, drugs and medicines, with their drivers during periodic staff appraisals and team meetings.

There were 9,737 casualties on NI roads last year...

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