The dangers of drink driving are well-known, with widespread campaigns and tough laws ensuring most people think twice before getting behind the wheel after having one too many.
But experts warned today of a separate problem blighting Britain’s roads — ‘hippy crack’.
The Netherlands yesterday outlawed the sale and possession of nitrous oxide, as it is officially known, in what is thought to be a first for a European country.
Dutch officials claimed the crackdown was prompted by a surge in road accidents caused by drivers using the mind-bending drug, with 1,800 recorded over the last three years.
Doctors warn that using the drug behind the wheel is extremely dangerous because it starves the brain of oxygen and impairs the senses.
Road safety campaigners want the UK Government to do more to stop drivers doing it.
Doctors told MailOnline using nitrous oxide behind the wheel is extremely dangerous because it starves the brain of oxygen and impairs the senses
Four Brits driving around Amsterdam’s red-light district ended up in a picturesque city canal in August 2020. Police suspect they may have been taking laughing gas before the incident
What is Nitrous Oxide and is it illegal?
Nitrous Oxide, has been nicknamed ‘laughing gas’ due to the euphoric and relaxed feeling people who inhale it can sometimes feel.
The substance – also known as ‘hippy crack’ – is normally bought in pressured canisters, commonly transferred to a container, e.g. a balloon, from which the gas is inhaled.
Although possession of laughing gas is not illegal, English law prohibits its sale to under-18s if there is a chance they will inhale it.
Nitrous Oxide canisters and cigarette butts litter a roadside in Camden Town on February 11
The effects of nitrous oxide vary depending on how much has been inhaled but they include:
• Feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness.
• Dizziness, difficulty in thinking straight and fits of giggles/laughter.
• Sound distortions or even hallucinations.
• In some people, a headache can be an unwanted immediate effect.
• Unconsciousness or death from lack of oxygen. This occurs when the available oxygen for breathing is effectively pushed out by the nitrous oxide.
Currently, nitrous oxide — better known as ‘nos’ or laughing gas — is legally available for commercial caterers to use in whipped cream dispensers and other uses.
However the silver cannisters containing the gas, which can be easily bought online, often end up in the hands of young people as a recreational drug.
Only possession with intent to supply for its inebriating effects is currently illegal in Britain.
But the Home Office is considering a stricter ban, which could see it become illegal to own.
Tighter laws could also be brought in to limit how easy it is to buy, if the Government chooses to act.
Driving under the influence of any drug, including nitrous oxide, is already outlawed.
However, it is can be difficult to punish drivers using nitrous oxide because the drug only stays in the body a short time and can’t be traced in most standard drug tests.
Nitrous oxide, popular at festivals, has become a popular recreational drug in the last decade. It is now the second commonly misused substance among 16 to 24-year-olds, after cannabis.
Users inhale the colourless gas through balloons or canisters, which can cost just £25 for industrial-sized containers.
The ‘high’ kicks in immediately, causing users to feel dizzy, relaxed and giggly, and lasts one to two minutes, on average.
Having too much, however, can make users faint or suffocate due to a lack of oxygen to the brain if they inhale highly concentrated forms of the gas.
It can also cause dizziness, hallucinations, severe headaches and stop you thinking straight — all of which impairs driving.
Heavy and regular use can cause a vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia.
Footage has shown an increasing number of Brits using it while driving, despite the array of dangers that poses.
Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at Birmingham City Hospital, told MailOnline: ‘We know some drivers are “ballooning” whilst driving.
‘There a number of ways it will impede driving, firstly via hypoxia — lack of oxygen — from repeated use, as nitrous oxide itself has a very short time effect, as well as the distraction itself whilst driving.
‘Finally the short term disinhibition whilst laughing under the influence could itself be a factor.’
He added: ‘I am meeting West Midlands Police next week to enquire how many arrests have been made under the Psychotropic Drugs Act (2016) for supply of NOS.’
Campaigners last month claimed more needs to be done to prevent Britons using the drug while driving.
Ex-traffic officer and Campaign Against Drink Driving trustee John Scruby said social media posts of drivers inhaling the gas are ‘shocking to witness’.
The group supports ‘any procedure to rid drink and drug-drivers from our streets’, he added.
Last December, Millwall football player Tyler Burey shared footage of himself appearing to take the drug while driving on social media
A video in August 2020 showed four Brits being rescued from a canal in Amsterdam after they drove their car into it.
Police suspected they may have been taking laughing gas before the incident.
Separate footage filmed a month later showed a man in east Manchester inhaling hippy crack from behind the wheel.
Dashcam footage shows the motorist driving along a dual carriageway in Gorton, before he stops at a set of traffic lights and begins to inhale the suspected nitrous oxide from a balloon.
Moments later, his passenger begins to inhale from another balloon before throwing a silver canister out of the window.
Last December, Millwall footballer Tyler Burey shared footage of himself appearing to take the drug while driving on social media.
Burey, who was on loan at Hartlepool United at the time, posted the video on Snapchat before removing it 10 minutes later.
Millwall launched an internal investigation into the incident and he returned to the club at the start of the year, where he has played 15 times this season.
The drug is listed under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act in the UK, which means it is illegal to give away or sell.
Supplying the drug and trying to produce it can lead to up to seven years in prison. But possession and use is not currently illegal.
Driving while under the influence of any drug is illegal, however, and can lead to a minimum one year driving ban, an unlimited fine, up to six months in prison and even a criminal record.
A Government commissioned review is now looking at whether more needs to be down to curb the use of larger canisters.
Tory MP Mark Harper is leading a parliamentary debate on nitrous oxide next Wednesday.