80 mg Limit to Stay

Sober reflections on the news that the plan to reduce the drink-driving limit has been shelved for the foreseeable future

The official government announcement in March 2002 that the UK's 80 mg drink-driving limit was to be retained met with a low-key response. But many licensees and pubgoers will have quietly breathed a large sigh of relief that the threat that had hung over their businesses and their way of life for four years had been lifted. This should not be treated as an occasion for celebration, but it is a significant victory for common sense over muddled, emotional thinking.

At the beginning of 1998, the recently elected Labour government put out a consultation document that recommended the reduction of the drink-driving limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, broadly speaking from two pints of ordinary strength beer to one. In their road safety review published in March 2000, the DETR (now DTLR) said that they did not intend to proceed with the reduction in the immediate future, but would await the result of the European Commission's investigation of a harmonised 50 mg limit across the EU. It was not clear at the time whether this was an excuse for shelving the policy indefinitely, or simply a delaying tactic. But, two years later, it was officially confirmed that the UK had no intention of implementing a 50 mg limit. This has probably removed the threat for at least ten years, although clearly it hasn't gone away entirely.

Some have suggested that the decision was taken on cynical electoral grounds, and in 2000 it was headlined in the Guardian in terms of "Drink-driving cave-in to alcohol lobby". However, although I am in general no fan of the present government, I will give them credit for being more moral and responsible than that. In practice, there are probably few votes in the issue one way or the other, and opinion polls continue to show that a majority of the population actually favour a reduction - 75% according to that Guardian report, although other figures I have seen are more like 60/40 in favour. If there was any electoral calculation at all, it was that it would reinforce their image as a nannying government who were very keen on banning things, particularly those affecting country dwellers.

But surely the real reason for the decision is that the government were not convinced, at the end of the day, that reducing the limit would make much, if any, contribution to saving lives. It would also possibly have undermined the enforcement of the law by leading to public debate about the limit, whereas at present nobody is ever heard to publicly challenge 80 mg. If they had genuinely believed that it would make a significant difference, then I am sure they would have done it. The original consultation document signally failed to make a convincing case that a limit cut would save lives, and indeed in many respects was a shoddy and poorly-argued piece of work. How on earth, for example, could they say that there would be "no compliance costs" from a lower limit, when even its strongest advocates would accept that it would lead to many pub closures?

The actual words of Transport Minister David Jamieson, in a Commons written answer on 20 March 2002, were:

We have looked closely at the arguments for and against a change to the drink drive limit. We feel that we should maintain the emphasis on enforcement and education through publicity. The penalties for drinking and driving in Britain are among the toughest in Europe, and we will continue the fight against people who endanger themselves and others by drinking and driving.

There can be little doubt that our approach of powerful publicity and enforcement backed by strong penalties has achieved the two-thirds reduction in drink drive deaths since the 1970s, and given us one of the best overall road safety records in the European Union. But there is a lot more to be done. We shall continue to emphasise that the only really safe option is never to drink and drive.

I feel sure that one key factor in not reducing the limit was the attitude of the senior traffic police officers. Even though ACPO have gone on record as supporting a cut, many senior officers are known to oppose it, and I can imagine them saying to the government something along the lines of:

Currently we have a drink-drive law that enjoys pretty much universal support. Cutting the limit to 50 mg might save a handful of lives, but it would do it at the cost of forfeiting much of that support, particularly amongst the licensed trade, whom we need to keep on side. Mandatory driving bans for offenders in the 50 - 80 mg range would be widely seen as unreasonable. On the other hand, if the offence only carried a fine and penalty points, most of the drivers who currently think they are driving within this range will continue to do so, at least until they are caught, as they are presumably people who don't accept official advice unquestioningly anyway. And it will make no difference at all to the morning after drivers, and the "irresponsible but lucky". So there are serious problems of public support and effectiveness associated with either option. Therefore you should leave the limit unchanged, but give us more powers to enforce the current law.

The issue of penalties is absolutely critical. Most Continental countries that nominally have a 50 mg limit treat exceeding it by a small margin as no more serious than a minor speeding offence, and often do not impose mandatory driving bans until levels well above 80 mg. In the UK, driving bans for BACs in the 50-80 range would, as stated above, have been condemned as draconian, particularly given that many drivers in this range are not impaired at all. In contrast, introducing graduated penalties would have destroyed the clear-cut, black-and-white nature of the current law and in a sense almost have provided an encouragement to drive with a BAC between 50 and 80 mg.

The relevant section of the Road Safety Review document produced in 2000 said:

4.19 In February 1998, the Government consulted on whether to lower the drink-drive limit from 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood, to 50mg (which is the limit in most other EU countries). Lowering the limit could save around 50 deaths and 250 serious injuries a year. A report on the consultation is available from the Department.

4.20 The consultation document indicated that the Government was minded to lower the limit and the response was supportive from a range of organisations. However, there is a European context to this debate. The European Commission is currently reviewing its existing proposal for a Directive on the drink-drive limit. Though we do not yet have details, it is likely there will be continued pressure for a harmonised 50mg overall limit in Europe, and possibly even lower limits for specific categories of driver. If the UK acted unilaterally, we could end up having to readjust to new European regulations soon afterwards.

We therefore intend to deal with proposed reductions in the European context.

In hindsight, it seems that European harmonisation was basically just a smokescreen to cover a prudent but potentially embarrassing retreat. Certainly the chorus of dismay with which anti-drink pressure groups such as Alcohol Concern and the Institute of Alcohol Studies greeted the decision suggests that they saw it as a major setback.

An important point about this episode is never to assume that proposed changes in the law like this are inevitable until they actually happen. Whatever you may feel about foxhunting, its supporters have fought a very vocal and determined campaign to defend it, even though they know they are in a minority in terms of public opinion, and a ban that many believed was certain under a Labour government did not happen in their first term, and is still (April 2002) some way off. The same is true of cutting the drink-drive limit, which would have a much more severe effect on rural life than a foxhunting ban. And would the handgun ban have gone through quite as smoothly as it did in Tony Blair's honeymoon period, if it had been proposed at a later stage in the government's life?

With the 80 mg limit, we in the UK have continued to see significant year-on-year reductions in drink-related casualty figures, although there does seem to have been a slight upturn in 2000, mainly due to the message not getting through to under-30 drivers. The nature of the problem has also changed. In the late 60s and early 70s "beating the breathalyser" was widely considered to be something of a challenge, and vastly more people than today would routinely drive after having had a couple of pints above the limit. I recently saw a repeat of an episode of "Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?" from about 1973, which found humour in the issue that to many people nowadays would seem absolutely shocking.

Today, you will never see anyone on television, or read of anyone in a newspaper or magazine, drinking any alcohol whatsoever before driving, unless there is a didactic message being put across about the dangers of drinking and driving. This is despite the fact that, in real life, each week, many millions of people drive to a pub and drink alcohol within the legal limit, without any adverse consequences. How, for example, do most of the customers of the real-life equivalents of the Woolpack in "Emmerdale" get there?

Many younger people will make a point of refusing any alcoholic drink whatsoever before driving, and illegal drugs are now felt to be a much bigger problem amongst drivers under 25. This suggests that the passage of time alone will lead to a continued reduction in drink-driving casualties. Indeed it could be argued that the UK has already effectively reaped pretty much all the potential benefits of a 50 mg limit.

You would wonder who still did it, but each year there are still more than 80,000 convictions and, even in 2000, 500 road deaths. But now, it isn't a generalised problem in society, it has been driven underground and is increasingly confined to a a low-profile hard core, who regrettably often seem to have no compunctions about driving when over twice the current legal limit.

I am sure there are many sensible individuals in the traffic police who recognise that the nature of the problem has changed and they need to develop different strategies to counter it, as I have suggested elsewhere (see Who are the High-Risk Offenders? for more details). The police will have to adopt a much more targeted approach to identifying and apprehending the hard-core, and there must be thoughtful traffic officers who are challenging the usefulness of the mass breath testing of innocent motorists which currently seems to be one of the main weapons in their armoury.

One slightly disturbing element in the government's proposals in the Road Safety Review must be mentioned. The report said:

4.16 At present the police can stop any driver but can carry out a breath test only if there has been a road traffic offence, an accident, or if they suspect that the driver has been drinking. We are looking at rationalising the law because the current practice is too restrictive. We want the police to have powers to breath-test people driving at locations where it is reasonable to assume an amount of drinking may have taken place. Intelligence-led policing is commonplace in dealing with other crime. We would expect public support and understanding from people stopped in such situations. All drivers involved in accidents are routinely breathalysed and there is now no stigma attached to being asked to take such a test. Procedures will be developed to ensure that the rights of the individual will be safeguarded.

There is nothing wrong in principle with intelligence-led drink-drive enforcement, and indeed I have suggested it myself as an alternative to carrying out mass breath-testing with ludicrously few positive results. But, unless there are safeguards, this would appear to give over-zealous police officers the power to carry out vendettas against individual licensed premises. Even if you were certain you were not breaking the law, if you were tested a couple of times on the way back from a particular pub you might think twice about going there in future. A police car outside would probably deter you from stopping in the first place. Hopefully those procedures to safeguard the rights of the individual will also extend to individual businesses.

In conclusion, I had feared that the election of the Labour government in May 1997 would almost certainly lead to a reduction of the limit, and the inevitable closure of large numbers of well-loved pubs. While in many ways I have little sympathy with the present government, I will give them full credit for looking at this issue in depth and reaching a sensible conclusion, which is a great relief for anyone concerned about the future of the British pub.

And it cannot simplistically be said that the decision will cost lives - what is costing lives is the downgrading of proper traffic policing in favour of speed cameras, which greatly improves the odds of the hard-core offenders escaping detection. Speed cameras are singularly useless in catching drink-drive offenders. Police forces must now take the opportunity to develop more targeted and intelligence-led approaches to drink-driving enforcement.

(March 2000, substantially revised March 2002)

Return to Home Page