Driven Away from Drink

How the impact of the drink-driving issue has irrevocably changed the British pub

It is often said that the drink-driving laws have played a large part in killing off the country pub. On the other hand, it could be argued that the breathalyser has been with us since 1967, the legal limit has not been reduced since then, and surely pubs should have learned to adapt. The reality is more complex, and, while the limit has stayed the same, changing enforcement practices and public attitudes towards drink-driving have been one of the major forces for change affecting the pub scene.

Since 1967, far more people own cars, far more people have lifestyles and live in locations where they are largely dependent on car-based travel, and many fewer people are willing to drive after consuming alcohol, both above and within the legal limit. Overall, this results in a considerable reduction in the number of occasions when people will consider a visit to a pub.

For a period of around fifty years, from the early 30s to the mid 80s, there was an assumption that people would want to drive out to pubs in substantial numbers. As the number of cars on the road rose from below 2 million before the Second World War to 9 million in 1967 and 15 million in 1980, the burgeoning "car trade" was the key factor driving pub expansion. Car ownership was seen as desirable and aspirational, and driving out to a country pub was far more prestigious than choosing to drink in a run-down urban boozer.

It is also important to remember that this trend continued well past the introduction of the breathalyser in 1967. There was a short-lived blip in trade, but as the number of cars on the road steadily increased, it became clear that the law was not being intensively enforced, and driving with an alcohol level within the legal limit was still perceived as being an acceptable and indeed responsible behaviour, the rise of the out-of-town pub continued, albeit at a slightly slower pace. It should also be mentioned that, even before the breathalyser law, it's probable that a majority of drinking drivers visiting pubs have never consumed enough alcohol to exceed the 80 mg limit.

But the scene is completely different today, and this pattern of pub development no longer matches the trade that is now on offer. Many big suburban roadhouses have been sold off for housing or conversion to drive-thru restaurants, and plenty of rural pubs that were greatly extended in the 70s and 80s are rarely if ever even half full now. A whole particular type of pub - the all-purpose urban fringe or rural pub - is now outdated, and while a large but steadily dwindling number survive, no new examples are being opened, always a good indicator that the days of a particular type of outlet are numbered. To a current-day eye, accustomed to out-of-town pubs as mainly devoted to dining, the thought that in 1980 the wet trade dominated, and few served evening meals, is startling.

Back then, if you visited a typical country pub a few miles from a large town in the evening, you would find it full of couples of all ages who had driven out there for a drink. Today, there will be fewer customers in general, and they will be more polarised between diners and locals. The remaining couples will almost entirely be over forty-five. Many of the smaller village or urban fringe pubs, which once attracted much outside trade, are now reduced to catering for a small knot of locals. They've stopped serving food and increasingly are not opening at lunchtimes except at weekends. A lot of once thriving country pubs have now closed. Where country pubs do survive, all too often they have been turned into bland, knocked-through dining establishments. of the "Chef & Brewer" or "Vintage Inns" type. In the more prosperous counties close to major cities it's now rare to come across a "real" country pub.

In the mid-1960s it wasn't at all uncommon to go out in the car and drink four or five pints two or three times a week. In the first few years after the breathalyser law, it was not enforced at all strictly, and once people realised that, many continued to do what they had done before. However, it was generally drummed into new entrants to the driving population that they should stick to two pints if they didn't want to risk falling foul of the law. Also, as drink-related road casualties remained stubbornly high, the level of police enforcement was stepped up and many of the remaining loopholes in the law closed.

Since the mid-1980s the focus in publicity campaigns switched from "Stay Low" to "Have None for the Road" and many people, particularly the young, will now refuse to drink any alcohol at all before driving. The police have also started carrying out many more speculative breath tests and routinely testing everyone involved in an accident.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence that the police have carried out targeted campaigns against particular country pubs which have resulted in some cases in closure. I have heard this in particular with reference to rural Staffordshire. Even if you weren't breaking the law, being tested, or knowing that a mate had been convicted, might make you think twice about going to that pub.

Up to a point, this is desirable in terms of road safety, and drink-related casualties are less than a third of what they were 20 years ago. However, it holds out the prospect of a continuing decline in the total amount of available trade for pubs outside urban centres, which will mean the weaker ones will keep going to the wall. Many people see little point in visiting a pub, except for a meal, unless they can have an alcoholic drink. If they can't, then in general they won't bother, and either drink at home, or go to another pub that they can walk to. Being realistic, outside big towns, scarcely anyone goes to the pub by public transport, and nothing's going to do much to change that. Attempts to promote bus services to rural pubs are to a great extent pissing in the wind.

In the late 1970s, it was fairly common for a group of mates in their late teens or early twenties to go out and visit a few country pubs in the evening with a (tolerably) abstemious driver. But today, most younger people tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude towards drinking which means that they are not interested in driving to a pub and confining themselves to a couple of pints - they will either not go to a pub at all, or head off to the town centre drinking circuits, which did not exist back then, for a skinful. While they could use designated driver schemes, these require a degree of organisation and forward planning that militates against casual, spontaneous pubgoing and indeed tends to encourage the attitude of wanting to take maximum advantage when not driving.

But the opposite side of the coin is that the pub scene in urban areas has been revitalised. Twenty years ago, town and city centres were often moribund in the evenings, and in response to this local councils developed strategies to make them seem safer and enhance their appeal. One result has been a dramatic rise in new pubs and bars, and the creation of dedicated, fashionable drinking circuits aimed at young drinkers. There has also been an upsurge in characterful specialist pubs in urban centres, exemplified by Manchester's "Northern Quarter", but echoed in towns all over the country. And it is hard to imagine the Wetherspoon's phenomenon, which is almost entirely based on urban walk-in trade, happening thirty-five years ago.

So, since the introduction of the breathalyser, the various implications of the drink-drive issue have actually brought about a profound change in the British pub, closing down many pubs outside urban centres, turning others into quasi-restaurants, reducing the pubgoing opportunities available to most people, but at the same time encouraging the development of both town-centre drinking circuits and specialist urban pubs. In some ways this is a matter for regret, in others - particularly the safety aspect - a cause for celebration, but one thing is certain, that the British pub will never return to what it once was.

(Last updated July 2003)

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