Why we need a limit on drink-drive laws

Reducing how much we can legally drink before driving is an imposition on our freedom that makes little difference to safety.

A review of Britain’s drink-driving laws has been published today by the new transport secretary, Philip Hammond. The report, commissioned by the previous New Labour government, proposes that the legal limit for drinking before driving should be reduced to save lives. But the risks of drink driving are invariably overstated while the problems that are created by ever-greater regulation are often ignored.

According to the review, prepared by former law commissioner Sir Peter North: ‘Over recent decades there has been a welcome reduction in deaths and serious injuries on the roads, including those associated with drink driving. However, there are still some 430 deaths and 1,600 serious injuries every year which are attributable to drink driving. Reduction in that number requires further road safety initiatives to be adopted.’

The proposal that has attracted the most attention is to reduce the legal limit for drinking before driving from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg, almost halving the amount someone could legally drink before driving. North claims that reducing the limit could save up to 303 lives per year. (Given that there are 430 drink-drive deaths in total, this seems hopelessly optimistic.) In addition to reducing the limit, the report suggests that the current system of breath-test confirmation, where drivers close to the legal limit can demand a blood or urine sample be taken as a check, should be scrapped. North argues that this may have had some value in the past, but now that breathalysers are more accurate, the right to a second form of testing could only allow drivers who are marginally over the limit to escape conviction.

On the surface, such proposals seem uncontroversial. Drink-driving is anti-social. Ideally, anyone getting behind the wheel of a tonne or more of fast-moving metal should be free from anything that might distract them or impair their ability to drive safely. It should not be acceptable for someone to drive while half-cut.

Alcohol does markedly increase the risk of an accident. The North Review notes: ‘Drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of between 20 mg/100 ml and 50 mg/100 ml have at least a three times greater risk of dying in a vehicle crash than those drivers who have no alcohol in their blood. This risk increases to at least six times with a BAC between 50 mg/100 ml and 80 mg/100 ml, and to 11 times with a BAC between 80 mg/100 ml and 100 mg/100 ml.’

But that increased relative risk needs to be set against the absolute risk of an accident. Despite all the millions of cars travelling billions of miles in the UK each year, our roads are actually extraordinarily safe. According to UK government statistics for 2008: ‘There were a total of 230,905 reported casualties of all severities, seven per cent lower than in 2007. 2,538 people were killed, 14 per cent lower than in 2007, 26,034 were seriously injured (down six per cent) and 202,333 were slightly injured (down seven per cent).’

Now compare those figures to the statistics on the number of miles travelled. Cars, which make up 79 per cent of vehicle movements, travelled 401.7billion kilometres (just over 250billion miles). Throw in other forms of traffic, and the total comes to over 500billion kilometres travelled. Overall that means one fatal accident every 197million kilometres. Comparing these figures with the relative risks suggested by the North Review, that means one fatal accident every 17million kilometres for those with blood-alcohol levels over the current drink-drive limit.

On the basis of these very rough, back-of-a-beermat statistics, a 10-kilometre (six mile) drive home while sober would present a 19million-to-one risk of a fatal accident. If that risk is 11 times greater for those driving over the current legal limit, the odds of a fatal accident would be 1.7million-to-one.

Of course, these are only approximate figures that take no account of the time of day, the roads, the behaviour and age of the driver, nor the fact that alcohol-related accidents do seem to be more likely to lead to fatalities than those where no drinking has been involved. Nor should it be interpreted as suggesting that drink-driving is a good idea - it’s not. But what these figures do suggest is that having a really serious accident while drink-driving is actually still very unlikely.

Indeed, the evidence relied upon by North himself doesn’t seem to provide particularly solid support for his proposals. Based on the experience of other countries where the drink-drive limit has been lowered, there does seem to be some reduction in fatalities among men - in particular, young men. For example, one piece of research found that reducing the limit to 50mg ‘reduced alcohol-related driving death rates by 11.5 per cent among young people aged 18–25’. However, this report on drink-drive evidence, produced by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), also notes: ‘There were no significant reductions in deaths or injuries among the population as a whole when other concurrent policies and infrastructure quality were taken into account.’

Against this background of low risk, the UK’s drink-drive laws are already fairly draconian. If a driver is found to be over the current drink-drive limit, the automatic penalty is a one-year ban from driving, quite apart from any other sanction like a fine or an order to re-take the driving test. For those substantially over the legal limit, the bans are often longer. Considering that many people rely on their cars for getting to work, or even drive for a living, a driving ban can have very serious consequences, as drink-drive campaign adverts are only too happy to remind us.

The existence of the ban means that for those living in rural areas, going to the ‘local’ pub - which may be miles away - can be extremely difficult. The choice is to drink only a little or to flout the law. This dilemma hurts individual freedom and is helping to put many rural pubs out of business. Even for those living in cities, the fear of driving home after two or three pints can often mean the extra expense of a taxi or simply not bothering to go out. North argues that even with his proposed reduced limit drivers would still be able to enjoy one drink without breaking the law, but then questions whether even that is such a good idea. The landlords and customers of public houses up and down the land will no doubt be jumping for joy at this licence to party.

Worse, getting people out of the protective shell of a car can lead to unintended consequences. As a government factsheet on accidents involving pedestrians notes: ‘Around one in every five pedestrian casualties aged between 16 and 60 had “impaired by alcohol” assigned as a contributory factor. Based on coroners data (from 2007), 92 per cent of pedestrians killed between the hours of 10pm and 4am were over the legal alcohol limit (for driving) compared with around half of drivers’ (although testing may be more likely in cases where alcohol was clearly involved, thus skewing the figures).

The factsheet adds that only a small proportion of those killed or seriously injured in accidents involving a drink-driver were pedestrians – 160 out of 2,170 - suggesting that drunk drivers are more likely to kill themselves and their passengers rather than other road users.

The Conservatives opposed a reduction in the drink-drive limit while in opposition. In a press statement today, Philip Hammond said that the new government would ‘need to carefully consider these [recommendations] with other government departments. In doing so it is important that we fully investigate the economic and public service resource impact of any suggested changes to the law, taking account of the current financial and economic situation.’

Britain’s roads are very safe both in terms of absolute risks and by historical standards. Applying ever-tougher rules to when we can and cannot drive will have little additional benefit in terms of safety while making our lives more inconvenient or even preventing us from enjoying some activities altogether. If we really want to improve road safety, we should apply a little more thought to the problem of enabling people to drink without driving rather than imposing even tighter controls on our lives.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons asked if campaigns to raise awareness about drink-driving make the roads safer. Patrick Hayes criticised so-called ‘booze ASBOs’. Robin Walsh confessed he was a student binge drinker. Neil Davenport wondered if the government knew its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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