The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) believes that people involved in road crashes — fatal or otherwise — should be subjected to mandatory testing for substance abuse, and is pointing to an impending policy that could be designed to require such a measure.
According to NCDA Research Analyst Uki Atkinson the Ministry of Health and Wellness is bullish about the National Policy for the Reduction of the Harmful Use of Alcohol which has already received Cabinet approval.
“The fact is that harmful alcohol is causing significant damage to health and well-being and public health overall. So, you are talking about the accidents on the road, you are talking about violent injuries, unintentional injuries, non-communicable diseases; there is a whole host of other things that alcohol is related to that people don’t necessarily look at as a burden on our health system, but it is,” she told the Jamaica Observer.
As at December 23, 2022 there were 465 road deaths from 404 fatal collisions.
In 2021, there were 487 road fatalities, the highest number over 10 years.
Atkinson said the policy will, among other things, aim to regulate the availability and accessibility of alcohol products.
“You are looking at things like alcohol advertising, promotion, sponsorship, especially where it relates to use. It’s also looking to strengthen our health services and the community responses to harmful use of alcohol. We also want to look at things like reducing the availability of alcohol in places where it should not be, alcohol pricing and taxation,” she noted.
She said the measure will also address drunk driving policies and counter-measures.
“So, to what extent are we using breathalysers and how much more do we need to be testing people who are in accidents and fatal accidents? Do we do toxicology to determine if people were over the blood-alcohol level that they should have been?” Atkinson pointed out.
In Jamaica the legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath, or a blood-alcohol level of 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millimetres of blood.
Breathalyser machines are used to detect the levels. Jamaica first implemented the breathalyser system in 1995, but it crashed after the stationary testing machines fell into disrepair when they were deemed incompatible with Jamaican climate. Since then, the Government has introduced portable devices capable of being transported in police service vehicles. Last month, as a tangible show of support to the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s (JCF’s) work to enforce road safety, Red Stripe’s philanthropic arm, the Desnoes & Geddes Foundation, donated 50 breathalysers to the JCF’s Public Safety and Traffic Enforcement Branch valued at more than $3 million.
But according to Atkinson, breathalyser tests, though conducted, are not routine.
“It is definitely something that has to be legislated; it is not something that the NCDA can say to hospitals you must do; it doesn’t work like that, and that is why I am saying there is need for us to have policies in place so that the requisite actors can undertake these initiatives in keeping with the legislative framework just so you are not stepping over any kind of boundary in relation to human rights,” she explained.
In the meantime, she said the NCDA has drawn no conclusions as to the contribution that alcohol or drugs have made to traffic accidents here.
‘We can only know for sure if we are doing the actual testing, so it could be a whole lot of other things, but we don’t know and we can’t speculate, but we do know though that people do drive under the influence of alcohol; that is a reality,’ Atkinson stated.
A 2016 NCDA national drug prevalence survey showed that one in five males reported that they drove under the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs.
“That’s not enough for us to say alcohol intoxication is causing accidents; that data alone cannot tell you that the accidents are being caused by that. We have to actually test people who are involved in accidents,” Atkinson said.
In the meantime, she said the National Drug Prevalence Survey slated for next year should shed some light.
“What we hope to be able to do is to go into that data and not only ask people if they have driven under the influence but ask also if they have been in an accident while driving under the influence, and if the accident they were in was caused by being intoxicated whether by alcohol, cannabis or any other drug,” she told the Observer.
According to Atkinson, the NCDA has recognised that there was a gap in the 2016 data “because just knowing that people are driving under the influence is not enough for us to associate it with accidents.
“That is one small area in terms of the harmful alcohol policy, but we do need to have policy directives,” she said, while noting that given resource constrains Jamaica will have to partner with external agencies to get the necessary funding support.