Drink-Driving in Perspective

Some may take the view that opposing a reduction in the drink-driving limit is condoning drunken driving. I refute that absolutely. There is a world of difference between driving with a sub-80 mg blood-alcohol concentration (BAC), which poses little or no additional accident risk, and driving with a high BAC, which poses a dramatically increased risk. Reducing the limit would criminalise the former group while doing nothing to deter the latter. Indeed it is worrying the way that anti-alcohol groups, and many well-meaning people who have been taken in by them, have blurred the distinction between driving when drunk, and driving after a couple of drinks. One is dangerous, the other is not, but in their world the two come under the same category of "drink-driving". That is a cunning strategy for deterring responsible people from drinking at all, but works directly against road safety.

The significant reduction in drink-related fatalities since the mid-eighties is often attributed to the authorities adopting a more absolute position and no longer admitting that driving after a couple of drinks poses no danger and is within the law. However, surely the real reason for this is that the police have given a much higher priority to combating drink-driving and have administered many more breath tests.

I do not advocate any increase in the current 80 mg limit, or any amelioration in the normal penalty of a one-year driving ban. Britain has one of the best records in the world in reducing drink-related accidents, better than many countries that nominally have 50 mg limits, and one of the main reasons for this is the existence of a clear, black and white, standard that has general support. Introducing any form of differential penalties, whether or not combined with a lower limit, would cloud the issue and be counter-productive. Although obviously the level of risk increases on a graduated scale, in practice it is necessary to draw the line at a particular point. 80 mg has been in place and accepted since 1967 and I do not seek to change it.

However, I would propose the following changes in the law and the method of enforcement:

  • The police should abandon large-scale speculative breath testing, which produces absurdly low proportions of positive tests, and concentrate instead on targeting high-risk groups
  • Clarify the legal position on "attempting to drive" and "drunk in charge" so that there is no possibility of someone being banned from driving unless he has genuinely at least made an attempt to drive, and that people found "drunk in charge" where there is no possibility of driving are not punished so harshly.

  • Magistrates should have the option of not imposing disqualification for offenders in the 80-120 mg range, if they can show they had not been drinking for several hours before the offence, and there are no aggravating circumstances. This would end the injustice of marginal "morning after" convictions, but would not in practice encourage anyone to do anything that they otherwise would not have done.

  • Give magistrates slightly greater discretion not to impose disqualification if there are very strong mitigating circumstances. There is an example on the News page of a driver who stopped to assist at the scene of an accident, but was breath-tested when the police turned up and banned from driving, which seems extremely unfair.

  • The authorities should abandon the line of "even one drink is dangerous", which is demonstrably untrue and prevents many responsible people from giving their wholehearted support to anti drink-driving campaigns.

  • The government should mount a major publicity campaign about the risks of "morning after driving", which carries a significant risk of both accident and conviction, but tends to be ignored. An increasing proportion of drink-related accidents and convictions falls into this category.

The above do not in any way constitute a "drink-drivers' charter", and it is my sincere belief that they would in practice, if combined with appropriate publicity campaigns about the dangers of drunken driving, result in a significant reduction in road deaths.

And, while I don't in any sense seek to encourage anyone to do it who wouldn't otherwise want to, driving after one or two small alcoholic drinks is entirely legal (and would still be so - just - with a 50 mg limit), and there is no scientific evidence that it increases the risk of an accident.

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