None for the road

Last week it was reported that a review of drink-driving laws in the UK has recommended a reduction in the allowed blood alcohol level for drivers. The government must now decide whether to act on the report. Over at Lords of the Blog, Baroness Deech asks for comments, suggesting that a balance has to be struck, in the same way that we allow under-25-year-old men to drive even though they cause a lot of accidents. I thought I’d reproduce an edited version of my response here.

A balance has to be struck when it comes to preventing under-25s from driving, that’s true. Denying someone the ability to drive would cause them severe difficulties due to the terrible state of public transport in many parts of the country, and due to many employers still establishing themselves in locations inaccessible without a car (even public sector employers – but that’s going too far off topic).

However, drinking is not essential, it’s as simple as that. It’s not at all necessary or important. So why should some “right” to drink be put before the safety of other people? Try telling the bereaved relatives of innocent people killed by drink drivers that you’d put the driver’s right to have a drink before the dead relative’s life.

One respondent to a BBC “Have your say” on the same issue claimed that drink drivers only ever kill or injure themselves. In about half a minute, I found a number of articles from the last few years on the BBC website alone about innocent people who had been killed, and the torment their loved ones were going through, while in many cases the drink driver had escaped serious injury. I don’t feel the need to reproduce those links here, but it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the 168 lives saved would not be drink drivers themselves.

Despite supporting a reduction in the limit, I do have one reservation about the proposed 50mg/100ml level. Unfortunately, I feel it’s a view also being pushed by people who simply want the limit to stay as it is so that people can drink as at present, but putting that aside for the moment, it might have some merit. It is that reducing the limit will reduce people’s respect for the law, making it more widely ignored than at present. People will be confused about whether it’s OK to have a drink or not. Given that, perhaps an effectively zero limit is more appropriate (surely not actually zero due to alcohol content of medicines, and those naturally occurring in the body). That way it would send out an unambiguous and clear message, which is what the police still recommend, and was subject to an advertising campaign a few years ago: “None for the road”.

Alternatively, if the limit stays where it is, there should be much stricter penalties and enforcement. Police should have the power to randomly breath-test drivers, and anyone convicted of drink-driving should face a short prison sentence (a shock for otherwise law-abiding citizens, without being too much of a burden on the prisons) and lose their licence for a long time (5 years+) if not indefinitely, and should also face an automatic extended driving test if they are allowed to drive again.

There is often a view expressed in the media that drink driving is now socially unacceptable, yet I’m not sure it is to the extent claimed. While most people if asked would say drink driving in wrong, when it comes to the evening, and they are the ones enjoying a few drinks, I have found on a number of occasions otherwise perfectly decent, professional, middle-class people suggesting it is OK “just this once” because it’s a “special occasion” and they aren’t driving far. They still seem to consider drink-driving something a small number of alcoholics do, not something they could ever do. The change in attitudes still has some way to go, and a change in the law of one sort or another could be just what is needed.

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