Do government campaigns to raise awareness about drink-driving really make the roads any safer?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

No one seriously thinks that driving under the influence is a good idea. But do government campaigns to raise awareness about drink-driving really make the roads any safer, asks Rob Lyons?

Figures published this week by London’s Metropolitan Police show that drink-driving in the capital is on the rise again, especially amongst young, male drivers. A survey for BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat confirmed a similar picture across the UK, leading some organisations to call for even lower limits on alcohol consumption when driving. Do these latest figures point to a new epidemic of death and injury on our roads?

Not all that long ago, drink-driving seemed to be going out of fashion. Between 1996 and 1999, the number of fatal accidents involving drunk drivers fell from 580 a year to 460. The long-running government safety campaigns, which were first broadcast on TV and radio during the Christmas period but which were later turned into a year-round feature, were widely deemed to be a success story. While a ‘hard core’ of drivers ignored the government’s message, most people now view drink-driving not simply as anti-social but bordering on homicidal.

Now, however, the latest provisional figures are understood to show that drink-drive fatalities have climbed back to around 550 a year, with a disproportionate number of young men involved. Superintendent Dave Page of the Metropolitan Police said: ‘About a quarter of all arrests are people between 17 and 24, which is obviously very worrying.’ According to Sergeant Ivan Stafford of Leicestershire Police: ‘Figures from our Christmas drink-drive campaign show that out of 142 drivers who tested positive for alcohol, 69 were men under the age of 30. They’re the majority of the casualties, they’re the majority of the offenders. And the numbers of people being killed in drink-related accidents have increased dramatically. They’re killing themselves and they’re mutilating themselves, which is such a tragic waste of life.’

It should hardly be surprising that young men are risk-taking and irresponsible. Driving a large, fast-moving object while in a state which substantially affects your judgment is no doubt a foolish and anti-social thing to do – but then, bravado and rebelliousness are part-and-parcel of young men’s lives and always have been. What is missed in these shocked reports about drink-driving levels is just how rare alcohol-related accidents still are.

In 2005, there were 199,000 road accidents, the vast majority of which were minor. There were 3,201 people killed and 29,000 seriously injured (that is, they were hurt badly enough to be kept in hospital and/or suffered one of a variety of injuries including fractures, concussion or cuts). Road accidents are thus a key cause of death and injury in Britain.

Yet that toll of death and injury needs to be set against the huge distances travelled in vehicles each year. In 2005, cars alone travelled 397 billion kilometres (around 250 billion miles). Lorries, buses and motorcycles add another 100 billion kilometres to the total. That is 156 million kilometres travelled for each road death, and 17 million kilometres for each serious injury. There were about 33 million licensed vehicles of all types on the road in 2005, which means that the average vehicle travelled about 15,000km during that year. On average, therefore, there was one fatal accident every 10,400 ‘driving years’ and a serious injury roughly every 1,100 driving years.

Our roads, despite the volume of traffic whizzing around, are actually incredibly safe and getting safer year-on-year. For example, in 1950, there were 56 per cent more deaths on the roads (5,012 in total) at a time when there was only 14 per cent of 2005 traffic levels.

But drink-driving is dangerous, right? Drinking alcohol seriously affects a driver’s capacity to react to events on the road. How that translates into accidents has been the subject of two very similar studies, decades apart, from the USA and Germany. The upshot of these studies is that someone who has blood alcohol at the level of the UK drink-driving limit (80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood) is five times more likely to have an accident. Someone with twice this legal limit is 25 times more likely to have an accident. The effect of alcohol is thus substantial and the effect of each additional unit of alcohol on driving performance is greater than the last.

Moreover, people who have been drinking are much more likely to be involved in fatal accidents. Four per cent of drivers who were tested after being involved in accidents were found to be over the legal limit for alcohol; according to the UK government’s road safety website, however, nearly one-in-six of all deaths on the roads involve drivers who are over the legal alcohol limit.

However, these statistics do not mean that alcohol caused the accident, merely that at least one driver had drunk more than the legal limit. There are a whole host of reasons why accidents occur, from poor vehicle maintenance to driver errors like misjudgement or excessive speed. So even in drink-related crashes, alcohol itself won’t always be the main reason for the accident. For example, if a sober driver strikes a drunk driver from behind, the accident would generally be deemed to be the sober driver’s fault, but it still goes down in the statistics as an ‘alcohol-related’ accident.

What is the risk of a drunk driver causing a fatal accident? Someone driving at twice the legal limit is 25 times more likely to have a prang than a sober driver, according to the American and German studies. Following the figures above, that’s a fatal accident every 6.24 million kilometres. And alcohol-related accidents are four times more likely to involve a fatality. That’s still only one fatal accident for every 1.5 million kilometres (roughly a million miles) travelled even when someone is borderline pissed.

The real experience of most of those involved in driving home when a little tipsy or drunk is that few problems occurred, and the risk of being caught for drink-driving is far greater than the risk of being involved in an accident. That reality does not concur with the overblown ‘drinking + driving = death’ message of today’s safety campaigns.

As a result of these campaigns, most people leave the car at home when they go out for the night. But often, there is not enough decent transport late at night, which means that people who are worse for wear tend to walk home (or have a punch-up in a taxi queue). As a result, around one third of the 600-or-so pedestrians killed in car accidents each year are themselves over the legal alcohol limit for driving.

Drinking and driving shouldn’t be legalised, of course. But whether drink-driving should automatically lead to a driver being banned from the roads is open to question. How many people will be stopped and tested the following morning, many hours after they stopped drinking? What about those who can only get to a pub using a car – should they be penalised in the same way? Overall, do the draconian measures against drink-driving really lead to safer roads?

Behind this emphasis on drink-driving as the most morally culpable of driving behaviours (speeding, for example, is generally regarded as ‘a bit naughty’) there lies a moral message about the dangers of alcohol that has little to do with safety. Instead of ever-more stringent laws on drinking and driving, we need a sober assessment of the dangers of both driving under the influence and the demonisation of drivers.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…?

Youngsters take drink-driving to a 10-year high, This is London, 30 May 2007

Road Traffic Statistics for Great Britain 2006, UK Department for Transport

Bar, car, black sheep, by Rob Lyons

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Topics Politics


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