Nitrous oxide whippits used recreationally as a drug by Dutch youngsters near a school, Utrecht, 2017

Call for breath tests to detect drivers under the influence of nitrous oxide

  • February 20, 2024

ETSC’s Belgian member VIAS institute is calling for the development of a breath test to detect when a driver has consumed nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas’.  

Nitrous oxide has become an increasingly popular recreational drug in recent years. It is also found more and more often on board cars involved in crashes. To date, there are few reliable figures on the number of crashes caused by taking the substance. But in the Netherlands, the Dutch police have officially recorded, between 2019 and 2022, 700 serious or fatal crashes probably caused by the consumption of laughing gas.

Nitrous oxide causes (short-term) intoxication in its user, but until now little was known about the duration of these negative effects on driving ability. A new Dutch study led by Maastricht University, Leiden University Medical Center and TNO shows that the effects on driving are noticeable for at least 45 minutes after inhalation.

To carry out this study, the researchers administered laughing gas to 24 people under experimental conditions. Subjects then had to perform a computer task similar to driving a car.

According to the study, the consumer experienced one minute of intense euphoria after inhalation. The user is completely unable to participate in traffic safely at this time. Additionally, lower detrimental effects on driving performance were observed for at least 45 minutes after inhalation.

The researchers also took samples of breath, blood and saliva to check whether nitrous oxide could be detected. It appears that laughing gas was detectable in exhaled air and blood for at least 60 minutes after recreational use. In none of the subjects, nitrous oxide was found in the exhaled air or blood samples if they had not consumed it. Nitrous oxide could also be detected in saliva, but this was also the case in participants who did not receive nitrous oxide. A saliva test to detect it is therefore not reliable at the moment.

The breath test is a simple and effective way to detect the presence of laughing gas in the body. So far, the tests have only been carried out in an experimental environment, but in the relatively short term, a breath test for nitrous oxide should appear on the market. The VIAS Institute would like to examine how checks can be organised as efficiently as possible and what role breath tests can play in this.

Photo credit: Hans Muller (cc licence)