Who Are the High-Risk Offenders?

An in-depth examination of the question that is the key to the drink-driving problem

In discussion of the drink-driving issue, the point is often made that the "hard core" or "high risk" offenders would ignore a lower legal limit just as they ignore the currently one. But how do we define these high-risk offenders, who exactly are they, and what can be done to get through to them?

Broadly speaking, high risk offenders are defined as those with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least twice the current legal limit of 80 mg. At this level, you are twenty times more likely to be involved in a fatal or serious accident than someone with a zero BAC. Drivers with these very high alcohol levels are responsible for between 80 and 85% of the fatalities in which excess alcohol is a factor. It is also worth noting that 60% of the road deaths attributed to alcohol are of the drinking driver himself, and a third of the remainder are the passengers of drinking drivers. This does not in any way diminish the seriousness of the problem, but it puts it in a slightly different perspective - it is often portrayed in terms of "drunk drivers mow down 500 innocents a year", which is not strictly correct.

The average BAC of people convicted of drink-driving is around 160 mg, and over half the offenders are above this level. This shows that the distribution curve of drivers' BACs does not, as you might expect, show a steady tailing off above 80 mg. There isn't a large population who are routinely driving when one or two drinks over 80 mg. The vast majority of drivers will either never exceed this figure, or only do so inadvertently on very rare occasions (usually the "morning after"), and hard-hitting campaigns over the years have dramatically reduced the incidence of lower-level offending. But there remains a small but significant group of people who continue to drive when over 160mg, at grave risk both to themselves and others, and who seem largely impervious to publicity initiatives.

The amount of alcohol you need to consume to reach this level is widely underestimated. The current legal limit is often said to be equivalent to two pints of normal strength beer, but in fact this is an amount that would leave most people safely below the limit. Four pints would probably give you a maximum BAC of around 120 mg, and, given that you would be drinking over a period of two or three hours, and the alcohol would have some time to metabolise, you would in practice have to drink six or seven pints to reach 160 mg. This is a level that would render most people at least a little "drunk", and nobody who drives in that condition can be under any illusions that their behaviour is way outside what the law permits.

Recent research carried out on behalf of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA) casts an interesting light on some of the key factors which might influence the behaviour of the high risk offenders:

  • Risk of being caught - they do not expect to get caught and anything which can be done to increase the perceived likelihood of being caught will be beneficial.
  • Ignorance of the strict penalties for drink-driving offences. For example, the offenders did not know that bans are mandatory, and certainly did not recognise the possibility of jail.
  • Second offenders had quickly forgotten the inconvenience of the ban and it was suggested that periodic reminders of the consequences may help to deter them from re-offending.
  • Education and information - for example the offenders did not understand the effect of alcoholic drinks on the body, the time it takes to metabolise or the fact that difference in strength can make a big difference to effect.
  • While shock tactics, which form the basis of some drink-drive campaigns, work for the vast majority of the population they do not work for the hard core offenders, who tend to close their minds to them.

Drink-drive offenders are often characterised as "golf club" types, but this is less and less likely to be accurate. It is a stereotype that had some truth in the 1960s when motoring was largely a middle-class, middle-aged pursuit, but today I would suggest that the overwhelming majority of high risk offenders fall into three categories:

  • Young people who have little or no respect for the law and may well be using a variety of illegal drugs in additional to alcohol
  • Older, working-class heavy drinkers for whom drink-driving has become a way of life and have so far escaped detection, or have been convicted and slipped back into their old habits
  • People with chronic alcohol problems, who may delude themselves that they never drink much before driving, but in fact have such a high overall pattern of consumption that their BAC is almost always well above the legal limit

There is also a clear correlation with people who have strings of other motoring offences to their name, in particular driving without insurance and MoT, and with unroadworthy or illegally modified vehicles, who in many ways constitute a kind of motoring underclass. Also, a growing proportion of offenders are those driving while disqualified, who may feel they have nothing left to lose.

The stereotypical view of offenders often links the golf club type with the picture-postcard country pub, but this again is increasingly far from the truth, and was never more than a partial picture. High risk offending shows little variation between rural and urban areas, and in reality the high risk offender is much more likely to be parked up around the corner from a back-street local or working men's club, than on the car park of a country dining pub. Increasingly, they will be drinking in private houses or unlicensed drinking clubs, or in the bars of sports or leisure centres. Anyone with the slightest degree of nous realises that driving off the car park of a prominent pub on the edge of or just outside an urban area automatically makes you a suspect. There are other places where you won't draw attention to yourself so much. Despite this, there is much anecdotal evidence that police enforcement activity continues to be concentrated on certain high-profile pubs when the actual pattern of offending has long since moved on.

I am sure that many pub licensees are aware, or suspect that one or two of their customers regularly drive home when over the limit, but understandably are reluctant to inform on them for fear of alienating other customers. A landlord with a reputation for "grassing up" his own customers would rapidly be left with an empty pub. However, on the other hand, a responsible licensee will seek to dissuade people from driving who were obviously much the worse for wear. It is questionable whether the same level of supervision would be on hand in other types of outlet.

Public transport provision is largely irrelevant to the behaviour of high risk offenders. As mentioned above, the incidence of high risk offending is little lower in urban than in rural areas and in general the high risk offender does not make a rational choice between using his car and using public transport, as his behaviour is essentially irrational anyway. This is further underlined by the fact that a large proportion of high risk offenders are caught within a mile of their home.

While the overall level of drink-driving offences has shown a dramatic decrease since the introduction of the breathalyser, I suspect that the number of people going out to the pub by bus or train (as opposed to stopping off for a drink on the way home) has also considerably diminished. Pubs may be crowded, but you don't see many people, particularly those over 30, waiting at bus stops between 11 and 11.30 pm. If they can't walk to the pub, they either get a lift or get a cab.

The conclusion is that high risk offenders are individuals whose behaviour is to some extent out of control, and is therefore difficult to influence by the normal means which might have an impact on the generality of rational people. The key points in a strategy to combat high risk offenders must therefore be:

  • using publicity to appeal to their selfishness and stress the risk of being caught, the severity of the penalties and the inconvenience of a driving ban, rather than any sense of guilt or social responsibility
  • attempting to link in a more formalised way people who are known to have alcohol problems, and those with driving licences (although medical confidentiality may restrict this)
  • more focused targeting by the police of groups likely to be high-risk offenders, rather than the motoring population at large. Maybe they ought to adopt methods more akin to detection than random sampling
  • education as to the severe risks and dangers associated with driving with a BAC well above the legal limit (although this might conflict with the current misleading stance that lumps together the half-pint man and the ten-pint man)

There is a danger that, while the tenor of current drink-driving campaigns increases the abhorrence of drink-driving amongst people who are highly unlikely to be offenders, it leaves the high risk offenders who represent the real danger on the roads largely unscathed.

I am sure that, if the police really put their minds to it, they could apprehend more offenders while at the same time carrying out a lower total number of breath tests. They would be pleasantly surprised by the results if they did a few more random tests in inner cities and a few less in leafy suburbs - but would that be seen as politically correct?

(Last updated January 2005)

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