Drink-Drive Increase … 50 Years On

It’s five decades ago (May 10, 1967) that a blood alcohol limit for motorists was first ushered in to Britain. But as motoring journalist, Tim Barnes-Clay, reports, government figures indicate drink-drive casualties are on the increase.


Statistics for 2015 (the most recent available) from the Department for Transport (DoT) reveal that 1,380 people were killed or seriously injured in collisions where at least one motorist was over the drink-drive limit – up five per cent on the preceding year.


There has also been an escalation in drink-drive casualties of all severities. The assessment for 2015 is 8,480 – a three per cent upturn compared with 2014. More than half a million (520,219) UK roadside breath tests were carried out by the Police in 2015. Out of those, over 60,000 motorists (one in eight of those checked) failed or declined to take the breath test.


1967’s Road Safety Act set the top limit at 80mg of alcohol per 100mL of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath). That meant that, for the first time, it became an offence to drive, try to drive, or be in charge of a vehicle with a breath or blood alcohol concentration going over that limit. The 80mg per 100mL limit was initially established on evidence that an accident is more probable at or above this point. But more modern evidence claims that motorists are compromised beneath this limit.


With only 10mg per 100mL, (one-eighth of the existing English drink-drive limit) you are 37 per cent more likely to be in a lethal road accident than when sober. At the lesser Scottish limit of 50mg per 100mL of blood, you are five times more likely, and with the present-day English threshold, you are 13 times more likely to be in a death crash.


Hunter Abbott, Advisor to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), said: “It has now become socially unacceptable in most circles to drive whilst over the limit. “Most people now know that if they go out drinking, they leave the car keys at home, but there’s a misunderstanding about how long alcohol can stay in the system the morning after. Sleeping doesn’t hit a ‘reset’ button – you process alcohol at the same rate whether you’re awake or asleep. The speed at which alcohol is eliminated varies considerably, influenced by factors such as size, health, metabolism and how much you have eaten.”


Abbott added: “Therefore, it’s easier than you think to unintentionally drink-drive the next morning, or to drive unaware that there is still enough alcohol in your system to dramatically increase your chances of being in a fatal road accident. The only way to know you’re clear is either to abstain from alcohol completely, or to use an accurate personal breathalyser which gives detailed alcohol concentration readings.”


Richard Allsop, Emeritus Professor of Transport Studies at University College London, undertook the original statistical analysis that advised then Transport Minister Barbara Castle to determine the 80mg per 100mL limit. He commented: “None of us knows whether we are one of the thousands of lives saved in Britain over the past 50 years. But as we rejoice for them, we should not forget those who are being killed by drink-driving at levels below the outdated limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of 80mg/100mL.”


The police breathalyser, which was introduced in Britain in 1967, helped the ratio of road traffic accidents where alcohol had been an influence to fall from 25 per cent to 15 per cent in the first year.


In 1872 when cars were a futuristic fantasy, it had already become a misdemeanour to be inebriated in charge of steam engines, carriages or cattle – the punishment being a fine of 40 shillings (£2) or incarceration, with the possibility of hard labour thrown in for good measure. Nine decades later, 1962’s Road Traffic Act made it illegal to drive if your “ability to drive properly was for the time being impaired” – but no legitimate drink drive limit was put in place until 1967.


Before that, drink-driving hearings had depended on subjective assessments, such as whether you could touch your nose with your eyes shut, or walk down a white line painted on the floor without wobbling. Witness statements and other observations by police surgeons were also considered. After the passing of the Road Safety Act on May 10, 1967, the brand-new drink-driving law came into being on October 8 that year.


PACTS advisor, Hunter Abbott, concluded: “There’s no doubt that decades of Government-funded education and enforcement have saved thousands of lives. But we currently have the highest drink-drive limit in the developed world. Lowering that limit based on newer research could save many more lives.”