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References on Drugs and Driving


Dr G.B. Chesher

Department of Pharmacology University of Sydney and National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre University of New South Wales.

In this paper I will examine briefly the studies which have sought an understanding of the effect of cannabis and of alcohol on driving skills and their role in road crashes. This information has been based upon scientific data which have been collected from several scientific disciplines. I have outlined these in earlier papers and will only mention them briefly here.
The major purpose of this paper is to compare the two drugs, alcohol and cannabis and the status of the evidence as to their role in road crashes.
The determination of the legal limit for alcohol has been achieved in a scientific manner. There are pharmacological reasons why it has not been possible to follow these same techniques with drugs other than alcohol, including cannabis. This paper will draw attention to these problems.
First, we might briefly outline the nature of the evidence which has been generated to examine the effects of cannabis on driving skills and as a causative factor in road crashes. This information has been derived from the employment of three scientific disciplines:
2.1 Pharmacology and pharmacokinetics
Pharmacology is the study of the way a drug exerts its action in the body. This involves an understanding of the sites and the body systems where the drug acts and the consequences of this drug-system interaction. Information obtained from these studies can help to formulate an hypothesis as to how the drug may influence driving behaviour.
The pharmacological discipline known as pharmacokinetics studies the fate of the drug after it has been taken. It provides information as to the rate of absorption from the site of administration; the manner of its distribution in the body up to the delivery to its site of action (eg. the brain). Pharmacokinetics also studies the way the body eliminates the drug from the body and includes the understanding of the metabolism and excretion of the drug.
2..2 Behavioural pharmacology and psychology
These involve studies of the effects of the drug on human behaviour. The behaviour of relevance to this discussion concerns those skills which are (or are related to) those necessary for the safe control of a motor vehicle or other items of machinery. Psychological studies also involve the effects of the drug on mood and cognition.
The three classifications of these studies are:
(i) Those performed on specific tests of behaviour or psychological functioning (for example, tests of reaction times of various degrees of complexity; tracking; divided attention or vigilance);
(ii) Those performed in a driving simulator; and
(iii) Those performed in a real car, either in a closed course or in real traffic.
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