What are the consequences and penalties for drink driving?

In Queensland and most parts of the world it is an offence to operate a motor vehicle whilst under the influence of alcohol or substance. There are very obvious reasons for this, as research has shown that people who are under the influence have significant impairment of their judgment and reaction times – particularly when undertaking activities such as driving. This is commonly referred to as ‘drink driving’ or ‘drug driving’.

Which drugs can be detected?

It should be noted that drug driving can only capture three types of drugs: methylamphetamine (also known as speed or ice), THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) and MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy). Therefore, other drugs such as cocaine or heroin are not able to be detected with current tests.

What is drink driving?

With alcohol, it is possible to measure with scientific precision the blood alcohol content (BAC) within a person (that is, the percentage of alcohol that is in a person’s blood). It is only an offence if a person’s BAC is over a certain amount, and the penalty that they will receive is dependant upon what their BAC actually is. Generally speaking, a person with an open licence is able to have up to a BAC of 0.049 before they commit an offence.

A person on a Learner’s or Probationary licence are not able to have any alcohol in their system whatsoever. This means that even if their reading is very low, such as 0.01 – which would not even likely impair most people’s driving – they are still committing an offence.

As mentioned above, the severity of the offending is determined by how high a person’s BAC reading is. There are three different categories of readings: the ‘general limit’, ‘mid-range limit’ and ‘high limit’, which are 0.05, 0.10 and 0.15 respectively.

This in turn creates three different offences:

  1. Driving whilst over the general limit but under the mid-range limit, which is a reading between 0.05 and 0.09.
  2. Driving whilst over the mid-range limit but under the high limit, which is a reading between 0.10 and 0.149.
  3. Driving whilst over the high limit, which is a reading over 0.150.

Most people who watch American television shows would have heard of the term ‘DUI’, meaning ‘driving under the influence’. This term is very commonly misapplied to any situation where a person is over the general limit (0.05). However, in Queensland, this term only refers to the specific offence committed when a person’s BAC is 0.150 or over, or if a person’s driving is in some other way substantially impaired as a result of drug usage.

What is drug driving?

Whilst drink driving has been an offence for a very long time, the offence of drug driving is relatively new. These laws were introduced to reflect the very obvious fact that a person with drugs in their system can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than a person with alcohol in their system.
The offence of drug driving is a little bit different, however. Unlike alcohol, which can be measured with precision in the system, drugs are much more difficult to measure with any precision in a person’s system. As a result of this, the offence created by Parliament is known as ‘driving with relevant drug in saliva’.

What this means is that there is no threshold or minimum reading of drugs necessary before a person commits an offence. A person can commit an offence if there is any drugs present in their saliva at all. What this means in practice is that, because some drugs can stay in a person’s system for days or even weeks, a person may have taken the drug a week ago, and is no longer in any way impaired by it, and they could still be committing an offence by driving.

What does the court consider when sentencing an offender?

When a court imposes a sentence on a defendant for drink driving, it will have regard to a number of things. These are:

  1. The person’s BAC reading. Quite obviously, the higher the reading, the more impaired they are likely to be and the more dangerous they are likely to be to other road users.
  2. The circumstances and manner of driving. For example, was the person simply intercepted at a fixed random breath testing site (and not as a result of bad or dangerous driving), or did the police have to pull them over because they were swerving all over the road?
  3. The person’s character and history – is this the first time they’ve been convicted of drink driving, or do they have a lengthy and regular history of committing drink driving offences?
  4. How much of a danger was the person to the community with their manner of driving?

What sentences can be imposed for a drink driver or drug driver?

There will ordinarily be two separate components to the penalty that a court will impose.

The first is the substantive penalty, which can range from a fine all the way up to a term of imprisonment, depending upon the circumstances referred to above. Repeat offenders can and often do receive terms of imprisonment for drink driving offences.

The second aspect of the penalty will be the disqualification period. For a low range drink driving, where the person is a first time offender, a short period such as one month is possible. However, for high readings involving repeat offenders disqualification periods of one or two years, or even absolute disqualifications, are possible.

Drink driving and drug driving are very dangerous offences and as such are treated very seriously by the courts. It’s a significant step to take by taking away a person’s licence as this could have significant flow on effects upon their employment, family and relationships. In some circumstances, upon a conviction for a drink or drug driving offence, a person may be able to keep their licence. This is known as a ‘restricted licence’, which will be discussed in a future article.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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