ILLICIT drugs are responsible for more deaths on Hunter roads than alcohol.
Data obtained exclusively by the Newcaste Herald under freedom of information, reveals that in the three years to January illicit drugs contributed to more than one in four road fatalities across the region.
Drivers high on cannabis, ice, ecstasy or cocaine were involved in accidents where 54 people were killed on Hunter roads from January 2017 to December last year, compared to 32 deaths involving drunk drivers.
Senior Sergeant Shane Dawes, of Port Stephens-Hunter Highway Patrol, said the increasing rate of drug drivers involved in serious accidents was a major concern for all road users.
"People who take illicit drugs and drive are making a very poor judgement call," Snr Sgt Dawes said.
"It doesn't matter if it's prescription drugs or illegal drugs, if it affects your driving, don't get behind the wheel."
According to the Transport for NSW data, released under Government Information (Public Access) laws, there have been 196 people killed on Hunter roads from January 2017 to May this year.
Over the same time, drunk drivers were involved in 33 fatal crashes. The data identifying drug drivers is not yet available for this year.
There have been 15 people killed on Hunter roads to May and one was alcohol related.
Snr Sgt Dawes said the most common drug detected was cannabis.
"People may not be aware that drivers who use hydroponic cannabis are also prone to test positive for methamphetamine [speed and ice]," he said.
"It could be associated with the chemicals used to grow hydroponic cannabis or it could be the person who is selling the cannabis that is lacing it with methamphetamine."
Mobile Drug Testing (MDT) is conducted at roadside operations along with random breath testing, or by patrolling police.
Motorists are given a saliva test, with the results sent away to forensic labs if traces of illicit drugs are found.
A test for cocaine was introduced in July 2018.
By the end of this year, the number of MDTs carried out across NSW will have doubled to 200,000 per year.
It's understood about one in seven NSW drivers tested for illicit drugs return positive readings.
Snr Sgt Dawes said in some Hunter suburbs the rates were one in 10 or one in 11, meaning some drivers were getting the message.
He said testing technology had improved significantly over recent years which meant more drivers were being caught.
"I can't say that it's an increasing trend, we see more of it now because we have more technology to be able to identify drugs," he said.
"It's predominantly cannabis related."
Snr Sgt Dawes said any driver suspected of being affected by drugs would be sent by police to a hospital for blood and urine sampling.
"Anyone involved in a serious accident where someone is injured or dies, will be taken to hospital for mandatory testing," he said.
"The consequences associated with illicit drugs will vary from disqualification to a jail term."
NSW Police announced last month that a temporary hold on stationary random drug and alcohol testing, introduced in March to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, had been lifted.
Snr Sgt said there had been a spike in Hunter drivers caught high-range drink driving.
"A lot of people have been drinking at home and they might think that we are not conducting RBTs so they are venturing out," he said.
"We have seen more people with a high concentration of alcohol in their system."
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According to the Centre for Road Safety, there was an estimated 86 deaths in NSW caused by drug-driving and 57 from drunk-driving last year.
Of the 352 people who died on the state's roads last year, fatigue was believed to have caused 62 fatalities.
The vast bulk of deadly smashes, or 233, were on country roads.
Snr Sgt Dawes said rural areas in the Hunter recorded higher levels of drink-driving due to less public transport, taxis and Ubers.
Retired NSW magistrate David Heilpern made headlines earlier this year when he left the bench early, citing problems with punishments for drug-driving offences as a central reason.
Mr Heilpern went public with his concern that the laws penalise on the basis of any detectable level of a drug, not an intoxicating level.
"The sanctions include immediate loss of licence even before coming to court," he said.
"This often equates to loss of employment, especially in rural Australia.
"It is no exaggeration to say that many who lose their licence lose their job, their home and their marriage."
Research by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) found the number of people charged for driving under the influence of drugs in NSW tripled in the two years to June 2016.
In the 2014-15 financial year, 2331 drug-driving charges were finalised in the NSW Local Court.
In the 2015-16 financial year, there were 9808 drug-driving charges as a result of increased testing.
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