31 August 2009

The long eye of the law

Last week saw a new government-sponsored ad campaign to draw attention to the hitherto underplayed dangers of driving while under the influence of illegal drugs. Speaking at the launch, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said "Whatever one's views on drug taking" it is imperative that drug-driving is made totally socially unacceptable.

While it is true that enormous strides have been made in the last 30 years in making drink-driving socially unacceptable (at least in the UK), this whole campaign seems a little half-baked. If the idea is to make drug-driving socially unacceptable, then that means influencing people's attitudes, making them see the consequences of their actions upon the lives they wreck. All laudable stuff, until you see the ad campaign they have used, which is answering a completely different brief. It would not be the first time the cleverness of an ad has masked its message, but either Lord Adonis hasn't seen the ad, or he has signed off the wrong brief.

The ad features young beautiful things driving back from a night out. I am meant to deduce they are probably under the influence of illegal drugs, but, at this stage, the banter is charming, the people are beautiful, it could actually be an ad promoting the use of drugs for a good night out. But then we notice that all the occupants of the car have massive eyes, like aliens from Communion heading back to the mother ship after closing time at Roxy's. And then they get nicked by the police because their eyes gave them away; the boys in blue, rather than regarding them as a car of genetic mutant freaks, choose to arrest them for driving under the influence of a few grams of whizz. Then we get the pay-off: "Your eyes will give you away. Drugs have an involuntary effect upon your eyes that you cannot control. The police are able to spot this."

So where's the 'socially unacceptable' part of this campaign? This is pure bogey-man stuff, "Heroin screws you up" for the new generation. It is a crass and obvious attempt to scare users into compliance, not to question their own behaviour. Anti-drink driving campaigners realised the futility of this approach back in about 1985, and their recent success in reducing drink-drive deaths has been a switch of tack to convince the public of the moral weight of their cause, not to scare people with breathalysers.

But if you are going to scare people, you'd better make sure your threat is credible - and this campaign is, frankly, laughable. Apparently the police can spot if your pupils are overly dilated or constricted, which is pretty impressive; I have a vision of traffic cops holding up a little ruler to measure the exact size of the aperture and make a judgement to prosecute on that basis on a dark roadside. "Well, m'lud, as soon as we shone the bright torch in his eyes, we could see his pupils were heavily constricted."

There is no "drug breathalyser" equivalent to accompany this slick advertising campaign, despite such equipment being standard in Germany - instead our police have to rely on the less-than-credible roadside tests such as touching your nose or walking a straight line. I cannot imagine such flimsy evidence would stand up if challenged in court, because it is just so subjective, and you may have any one of at least eight medical reasons why your pupils are constricted.

If I were in the habit of driving while high on drugs, far from being worried, I would take some comfort from the fact that, despite the government's claims to "create a national debate" (always the last refuge of the desperate), their ability to catch the guilty has not moved in twenty years.

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