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Alcohol, Drugs and Driving - A Federal Perspective

Margaret Smythe

Federal Office of Road Safety, Department of Transport, GPO Box 594, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia


This paper will discuss the role of the Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) in countering drink and drug driving in Australia, through its activities in research and public education, contributions to governmental policy planning, and relationships with a range of organisations.

Examples of FORS' recent research and public education activities relating to drink driving, will be described. This will include the "Rethink Your Third Drink" and "Smart Card" campaigns, which relate to how much drivers may drink and still remain within the legal blood alcohol limits, as well as the "Light Right" advertisement, which encourages the substitution of low alcohol beer. The research performed by FORS and other key players that instigated the campaigns will be outlined, as well as the results of evaluations/monitoring activities.


The Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) guides the development of measures to reduce the incidence and severity of crashes in Australia. FORS conducts research into the causes of road crashes, develops standards and policies to improve the safety of road users, develops public education programs and provides policy advice to a range of government and other road safety organisations. The Office also administers the Motor Vehicles Standards Act 1989 which sets uniform national vehicle safety, emissions and noise standards (Australian Design Rules) for all vehicles entering the Australian market for the first time. Other responsibilities include dealing with vehicle safety-related defects, fuel efficiency and the transport of dangerous goods.


The objective of the Road Safety research program is to provide a sound basis for future policy development, and for implementation of public education programs to promote safer practices. The Federal Road Safety Research program supports the development and cost-benefit analysis of new-vehicle safety; the maintenance of national statistical databases needed to plan and evaluate programs and provide reliable inter-jurisdictional comparisons; a rational approach to national consistency in road user regulation, through objective and impartial research to identify best practice, including inter-jurisdictional comparisons; an efficient approach to research on major issues of common national interest; and the development and targeting of national public education campaigns

Research activities of the Commonwealth and States are coordinated through a Road Safety Research Forum, on which all jurisdictions are represented, and which operates within the broad priorities established by the National Road Safety Strategy (endorsed by Australian Transport Ministers in April 1992) (NRSS 1992); a national register of current and proposed projects; and frequent informal consultation between jurisdictions.

The FORS research program also takes into account priorities identified by the National Road Trauma Advisory Council, and priorities agreed between FORS and the National Road Transport Commission, as part of the joint work program of these organisations.

Public education provides an essential complement to enforcement activity in achieving major improvements in road safety and in gaining community support for regulatory measures. The public education activities of FORS are intended to complement the current activities of state and territory road safety authorities (and others), and identify future directions for efforts. FORS' approach involves identifying priorities that are not being adequately covered; developing innovative approaches that complement state and territory public education and enforcement programs; and ensuring that road safety education information is available and accessible to all Australians.


The involvement of alcohol in road crashes is a major road safety concern, and one of national significance. Drink driving is the single most important factor in fatal road crashes in Australia, and no jurisdiction is without this problem.

Although the incidence of blood alcohol concentration readings above 0.05gm/100ml in drivers and motorcycle riders killed in road crashes has declined as a result of the application of a number of countermeasures, around one-third of road fatalities from these categories are still found to have BAC levels in excess of 0.05. Different jurisdictions have achieved varying degrees of success in their efforts to address drink driving.

FORS has an important role in enabling interjurisdictional research and evaluation of drink driving countermeasures, providing a comparative perspective which would be missing if left to the individual jurisdictions, for reasons of resource priorities and insularity. As the link between alcohol use and road crashes is well established , research activities over the past 5 years have generally focussed on strategies aimed at further reducing the incidence of drink driving. Particular attention has been paid to activities aimed at identifying best practice in this area. FORS, being independent from State and Territory road safety authorities, is in a position to carry out evaluations of enforcement activities which might otherwise not occur, and encourage change where necessary, without bias.

Over the last five years the major focus of research has been on prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation strategies. This includes:

In the past FORS has also commissioned or sponsored other drink driving research:

As well as commissioned research, FORS has carried out in-house research into drink driving issues, including:

In addition to research and evaluation activities, FORS is very involved in providing well developed, coordinated and appropriately targeted public education activities relating to drink driving issues. Current examples include:


While alcohol remains the drug which is most implicated in road crashes, there are indications that drug use may be a contributory factor in a significant number of serious road crashes.

The NSW Drug Driving Strategy (1994) attributes psychoactive drugs as a potential factor in around 5% of driver fatalities (compared to 30% for alcohol).

A recently released study of driver fatalities in NSW, Victoria and WA found that 36% had used alcohol, 11% had used cannabis (often in combination with alcohol), 3.7% stimulants, 3.1% benzodiazapines and 2.7% opiates. Alcohol was shown to significantly increase the relative risk of a crash, as was the combination of alcohol and these drugs. Drugs-only drivers had a slightly increased risk of being responsible for a crash, compared to the drug-free group but this was not statistically significant (Drummer, 1994).

Problems in determining the role of drugs in road crashes include the lack of reliable data on the extent of drug use among the general population compared to road crash victims, incomplete information on the effects of drug use on driving-related skills, and the fact that drug use among drivers usually involves more than one drug means it is difficult to isolate the possible effects of individual drugs on crash risk. Added to these is the lack of technology for fast, non-intrusive, accurate measurement of drug use by drivers.

Research carried out on behalf of FORS is attempting to address some of these issues. FORS' research involvement in this area is particularly crucial as the fundamental nature of elements of this research are financially and logistically beyond the resources of the smaller jurisdictions. The fact that data in this area is scarce also means that pooling data from the larger, national picture is of much greater value than that which could be achieved by one jurisdiction alone

FORS major activity recently has involved:


Brooks, C and Zaal, D (1992). Effects of a 0.05 Alcohol Limit in the Australian Capital Territory - 1992; Federal Office of Road Safety MR 10, Canberra, ACT

Chesher G, Fox A, Greeley J, Lemon J, Nabke C (1992). Investigation of the "Hangover" Effects of an Acute Dose of Alcohol on Psychomotor Performance. CR103 Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Diamantopoulou, K, Cameron, M, and Mullan, N. (1995), The Contribution of Beer Consumption to Drink Driving. CR 152, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Drummer, O H (1994). Drugs in Drivers Killed in Australian Road Traffic Accidents. The use of responsibility analysis to investigate the contribution of drugs to fatal accidents. Report No. 0594, Victorian Institute of Forensic Pathology, Monash University.

Elliott, B (1994) Monitoring the "Rethink Your Drink" Public Education Campaign. Public Education Market Research Report, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Elliott, B (1995) Evaluation of the 1994-5 "Light? Right" Rural Road Safety Campaign. Public Education Market Research Report, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

Holubowycz O T, Kloeden, C N, and McLean A J (1992) Drinking Behaviour and other Characteristics of Injured Drivers and Riders. Research Report 2/92, NH&MRC Road Accident Research Unit, Adelaide, SA.

National Road Safety Strategy (1992), Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

National Road Safety Action Plan (1994), Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT

National Road Trauma Advisory Council, (1992), Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Fatigue. Canberra, ACT.

NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's Drug-Driving Task Force, (1994). The NSW Drug Driving Strategy.

Starmer, G A and Mascord, D J (1994). Drugs and Traffic Safety. CR140, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT.

Starmer, G A, Mascord, D J, Tattam, B and Zeleny, R (1994). Analysis for Drugs in Saliva. CR 141, Federal Office of Road Safety, Canberra, ACT.