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Safer Roads Through Science

Safer Roads Through Science

Date Published: 23-Apr-15

Have you ever wondered how the police detect if a driver is under the influence of drugs?

We spoke to ChemCentre’s WA Police Toxicology team to investigate how police catch and convict drug users on our roads.

ChemCentre plays a vital role in this side of road safety, providing laboratory testing to confirm if a driver is under the influence of something that makes them a threat to other road users. Roadside drug and alcohol testing involves Police testing to see if the driver is under the influence of a substance that alters their capacity to drive safely. Whilst the most common test is for alcohol, Police can also test to see if the driver is under the influence of mind-altering illicit drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines or MDMA (ecstacy).

Police use two initial screening methods to test drivers’ saliva for drugs and their metabolites (chemicals that the drugs are broken down into by your body). These tests are quick, accurate and easy to perform, however, they only provide an initial indication of impairment. In order to convict a driver, the driver’s saliva sample must be sent to ChemCentre where it will undergo further analysis.

Want a little more science?

The initial roadside tests work by using antibodies (proteins found in the body that target and bind to, foreign substances) on the surface of absorbent paper. The drug compound of interest binds to the antibodies blocking it. A chemical reagent is then added to the sample. If there are no drugs of interest in the sample, the reagent can bind to the unoccupied antibodies and will produce a colour change.

This process only occurs during routine roadside saliva drug testing. Under circumstances where police suspect a driver is under the influence of drugs due to erratic driving or involvement in a fatal crash, police will escort them to the nearest hospital to have a blood sample taken. This blood sample is sent into ChemCentre to be tested for a full suite of licit and illicit drugs.

When a blood sample arrives at ChemCentre it undergoes rigorous chemical analysis. The sample is extracted and analysed using a variety of techniques, allowing scientists to specifically identify and quantify over a 100 different drugs and drug metabolites. This covers over-the-counter and prescription medications (licit drugs), illicit drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine and cocaine and the ever expanding list of synthetic compounds; all of which could result in disaster if used by drivers on our roads.

You can read more about ChemCentre’s drug testing and forensic toxicology capabilities here.

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