Should there be zero tolerance on drink driving?

Posted on December 5th, 2011 by David Williams MBE


Don't drive drunk or don't drink and drive at all? Photo by Simon Cocks

Photo by Simon Cocks

A leading police officer thinks the drink-drive limit should be cut to zero; a road safety expert thinks a 50mg limit would be “more realistic and enforceable”

Drivers in England and Wales should not be allowed to drink any alcohol before they get behind the wheel.

That is the view of the Deputy Chief Constable of Northamptonshire who has received national news coverage after controversially calling for the drink-drive limit to be cut to zero.

Suzette Davenport suggested the move as the Association of Chief Police Officers launched its Christmas drink-driving campaign.

Road safety association GEM Motoring Assist; an organisation which is keen to protect the safety of the members they provide breakdown cover to, has long been an advocate of reducing the drink-driving limit.

However, GEM CEO David Williams, MBE, said: “In August 2011, the government rejected the North’s report recommendation that the alcohol limit for drivers should be reduced from 80mg per 100ml of blood to 50mg. So I think it’s unrealistic to call for a reduction to zero mg.”

Police statistics show that

  • 250 people were killed and 1,230 people were seriously injured in crashes involving drunk drivers last year
  • 17 per cent of road deaths in the UK were linked to drink-driving

Ms Davenport said: “Why is it we allow people to have a drink and drive? This change would take us into line with many other European countries.”

A recent move to lower the limit

A government-funded review of the drink-drive laws conducted by Sir Peter North in 2010 advised that the 80mg limit should be reduced to 50mg. The majority of European countries – nations which include Greece, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands – currently have this limit in place.

Sir Peter concluded his report by saying: “The public is ready for a lower limit. It is time to give them what they want.”

Plans to lower the limit were abandoned in August 2011.

The United Kingdom’s limit is currently the highest in Europe and was last reduced in 1967 – a move which precipitated a fall in the number of drink-drive-related accidents on the roads.  In Northern Ireland plans to use devolved powers to set a 50mg limit are being considered.

Backers of a move to a 50mg limit point out that when Switzerland reduced its limit to this amount in 2004, the number of alcohol-related road deaths were halved within two years.

How much can you drink before you drive?

Many existing drivers find it simpler to disregard the limits and not drink alcohol at all before driving. When researching this article I tried to find out a rough guide to how many glasses of wine or half pints of beer it is safe to consume if I wanted to stay under the limit before driving.

Such advice seems impossible to find on the opening page of a Google search engine – the effect of alcohol on an individual’s blood-alcohol level varies enormously according to factors like weight, size, age and tolerance to drinking.

An experiment conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire in July 2010 emphasised how hard it is to predict how much alcohol a person can drink before they would fail a breathalyser test.

One volunteer – a slim 8st 8lb dancer needed more alcohol to hit the UK limit than a woman 2 stone heavier than her. Another volunteer – a 16 stone man – could still pass the breath test after three and a half pints of beer.

How zero should zero tolerance be?

There are concerns that if a zero limit was introduced in the UK, some drivers could fail roadside tests even if they had not consumed alcoholic drinks as using mouthwash or eating chocolate liqueurs can leave trace elements of alcohol in the bloodstream.

In the light of this concern, road safety campaign group Brake believes that a limit of 20mg would be the most practical limit a government keen on imposing a zero tolerance limit could enforce.

Such a limit is already applied in Norway and Sweden and is designed to ensure that innocent drivers are not unfairly penalised.

David Williams of GEM Motoring is wary of following the zero tolerance-style approach favoured by these Scandinavian governments.

Mr Williams pointed out that while many studies have established that a 50mg  limit would reduce the number of drink-related road accidents, the evidence on whether a zero limit would have a similar effect is less clear.

“Would people just ignore such a law, could it be enforced?” he asked.

When asked whether he thinks a 50mg limit will be introduced in the near future, Mr Williams said: “Very regrettably, I can’t see this happening.”