Combating drink driving - next steps

Executive summary

The Government is developing a long-term strategy to reduce road casualties. Within that strategy the reduction of drink-drive accidents will play a major role. Whilst publicity and other measures taken over the years have brought about a slow but steady change in attitudes, there has been little change in casualty figures since 1993 and drink-related accidents still account for around 1 in 7 fatalities. New measures are needed if drink-drive casualties are to be further reduced.

The problem areas

The Government has identified three main problem areas:

  • hardened drink-drivers, in particular repeat offenders (around 12% of offenders are convicted of a second offence within 10 years);
  • drivers who are not above the current limit, but nevertheless impaired (studies dating back to the 1960s show convincingly that impairment and the risk of a driver's involvement in a road accident begin, for most drivers, well below the current legal limit);
  • young men, particularly in their twenties, who are disproportionately involved in drink-drive accidents.

Measures to deal with these problem areas

The Government believes that these problems have to be addressed on three main fronts:

  • improving enforcement;
  • improving the system of offences and penalties;
  • education, publicity and information.

Improving enforcement

One possibility would be to increase police breath-testing powers. Although these powers (combined with an unfettered power to stop moving vehicles) provide a great deal of scope, the police do need to establish reasonable grounds of suspicion where the driver has neither been involved in an accident nor appears to have committed a moving traffic offence. Drivers who are skilful at concealing their impairment are therefore difficult to bring to book. The Government does not favour totally unrestricted police powers. But some increase in these powers, properly regulated, seems worth considering and views are invited on this.

The Government is already looking at ways to speed up criminal proceedings at Magistrates' Courts in England and Wales, and this could benefit the speed with which drink-drive cases are processed. Delays in the current system can lead to long periods when the accused is still free to drive, and may reoffend. There may be further possible ways of streamlining justice in drink-drive cases without removing essential legal safeguards. The Government is keen to have an open discussion on this subject.

One recent development in the US and Canada has been the option for the courts to require drink-drive offenders to use ignition interlock devices so that their car will not start unless the driver has provided a breath sample below a given level. Devices like this, which need to be regularly checked and calibrated, are quite expensive for the offender to maintain and research so far suggests that, unless accompanied by counselling, they have little effect on the offender beyond the period the restriction is in force. These devices are available in the UK and can be fitted on a voluntary basis. We think that experience elsewhere should be further monitored before they are made part of the UK enforcement system.

Improving the system of offences and penalties

Although in most respects the current system works quite well, it takes too little account of driver impairment at levels below 80mg, even though there is much evidence internationally that impairment begins well below that for the average driver. It has been estimated that about 80 road users per year are killed in accidents where at least one driver had blood alcohol over 50mg but no driver had blood alcohol over 80mg. Perhaps 50 of these deaths could be saved each year if the legal limit were reduced to 50mg and enforced as effectively as the current limit. Some 250 serious and 1200 slight injuries per year could also be saved.

The Government therefore is minded to lower the drink-drive limit to 50mg. A key question is whether a 12 months disqualification should apply at this limit, or whether it should be reserved for those over 80mg, with a lesser penalty for drivers with levels between 50 and 80mg. Most European countries do not disqualify drink-drivers (or not for significant periods) unless they show a much higher blood-alcohol level than 50mg. On the other hand, a single penalty of disqualification is easy to understand and a powerful deterrent. Views are particularly sought on this issue.

High risk offenders (those convicted at 200mg or more, repeat offenders, and those who unreasonably refuse to give a sample) are a particular concern. The courts already effectively tailor their penalties to the alcohol level, the maximum punishment is suitably high (£5000 or 6 months imprisonment; where a death is involved, 10 years and an unlimited fine; also unlimited disqualification in all cases). There is in addition a medical procedure for high risk offenders - if they fail a medical examination designed to detect a chronic drink problem they may be refused a new licence or limited to a short-term one and further medical tests at each renewal. The Government proposes that more publicity should be given to these sanctions to increase their deterrent value.

Rehabilitation courses for drink-drive offenders have been operated experimentally since 1993. The courses are essentially educational and focused on the need to separate drinking and driving (they are not anti-alcohol as such but aim at promoting "sensible drinking"). All the signs to date are that these courses are reducing reoffending, even among the groups of drink-drivers who have proved least amenable to other interventions. The Government has recently launched a major extension of the geographical coverage of this experiment.

As novice drivers have high overall accident risks and feature quite high in drink-drive accidents (though not as much in their teens as in their twenties), the Government has considered the case for setting a lower legal limit for young drivers or for newly qualified drivers for a specified period after their test, as has been done in various other countries. However, it is important for drivers to develop responsibility for their actions right from the beginning, and there would also be enforcement problems. The Government invites views.

Education, publicity and information

The Government proposes to encourage the provision, dissemination and use of suitable educational material, so that education in drink-drive begins at the school level.

The Government will also continue a substantial programme of publicity, keeping alert to the need to target the appropriate groups and to find ways of reaching those who have proved hardest to target.

Information on units of alcohol in common drinks is becoming more widely available thanks to Health Education initiatives and, recently, a voluntary scheme among major drinks companies. We shall seek to use these developments to make drivers better aware of the relative strength of drinks.

Views are also sought on whether the Government should encourage the use of self-testing breathalysers, which are now being marketed in the UK (they are already widely used in France and some other countries). They cannot give as accurate readings as police breathalysers and could tempt the driver to drink up to the limit rather than stopping as soon as he or she begins to feel uneasy about driving. On the other hand, they could be useful in giving drivers general information on their likely impairment.

Consultation procedure

The consultation document is addressed both to representative organisations and to any member of the public who wishes to obtain it from the Department or through the Internet. Consultees are invited to send their comments by 8 May 1998. Please send them to:

P H Openshaw
Road Safety Division
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
Zone 2/13
Great Minster House
76 Marsham Street

The Department may be asked to make public the contents of the replies it receives to this consultation paper. When you send in your comments, therefore, please could you state whether you would be content for your reply to be summarised if we are asked to divulge what was in the responses we received. We would not publish the actual text of your reply.


The Government is determined to reduce the unacceptably high level of death and injury on the roads. While there have been substantial improvements, at least for fatal and serious casualties, in recent years, the numbers remain alarmingly high when compared with any other non-health-related cause of death or injury. There were for instance 3,598 road fatalities in Great Britain and 142 in Northern Ireland in 1996, compared to around 850 UK homicides. The Government has recently published its proposal to devise a road safety strategy and for setting a new target of reducing casualties by the year 2010. 1 It is already clear, on the basis of work to date, that a major element in this strategy must be the reduction of drink-related accidents which are a totally unnecessary and avoidable waste of life and limb.

The scientific evidence of the link between alcohol in the body and the risk of road accidents is well established. The most comprehensive study is an American one done in the early 1960s 2 . This research, which has been widely discussed and analysed by subsequent researchers, was studied prior to the introduction, in 1967, of the present drink-drive limit of 80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (80mg/100ml). 3 At this level, virtually any driver is significantly more likely to be involved in an accident than when sober and most drivers are manifestly impaired in their ability to drive. There was, nevertheless, evidence that, for many drivers, impairment began at levels well below this. The decision on an 80mg/100ml limit was a pragmatic one taking into account the public attitudes of the time to the imposition of breath testing, which was then a novel and controversial procedure. However, it is generally accepted today that at blood alcohol levels between 50 and 80mg, an average driver is around 2 or 2.5 times as likely to be involved in an accident, while for young drivers or less experienced drinkers, the risk may be increased by five times. The risk of fatal accidents rises more steeply (witness the fact that about 20 per cent of drivers killed in road accidents have blood alcohol levels above 80mg. 4 , whereas roadside surveys have shown that only around 1 per cent of the driving population in general do so). 5

Current measures to combat drink-drive

A number of measures are already being taken to reduce drink-driving, and have had a considerable degree of success over the years.

The drink-drive limit has remained unchanged since it was first introduced, along with roadside breath testing, in 1967. Evidential breath testing was introduced in 1983 as an alternative to the taking of blood samples; by streamlining the prosecution procedure this has encouraged a large increase in roadside enforcement. Better roadside screening devices have also increased enforcement - in 1996 over 780,000 roadside tests were carried out in England and Wales alone compared with 241,000 in 1983. 6

Penalties have been reviewed from time to time. Currently, for an "ordinary" drink-drive offence (not involving death) the courts can impose a custodial sentence of up to 6 months and a fine up to £5000. 7 A conviction also almost invariably results in disqualification for at least 12 months.

Following a detailed review 8 of road traffic law in 1985-8 by a Committee chaired by Dr (now Sir) Peter North, then Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, a new offence was created by the Road Traffic Act 1991 carrying a maximum prison sentence of 5 years for those who caused death by careless driving while above the legal limit or while unfit through drink or drugs. The maximum sentence was further increased to 10 years by the Criminal Justice Act 1993 9 . The number of drivers convicted of this offence has been small (98 were reported to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for disqualification under this provision in 1996 in Great Britain - by comparison there were about 94,000 "ordinary" drink-drive convictions in 1995) but the existence of the offence has allowed appropriate sentencing in cases where the offence is exacerbated by careless driving and there are fatal consequences.

The 1991 Act (and equivalent Northern Ireland legislation) introduced several other measures to deal with drink-drive offenders. It empowered courts to order the forfeiture of vehicles used in committing the offence (although this power has seldom been used). It also gave them a discretionary power to require drink-drive offenders to take an extended driving test, obliging them to become "learners" again for a period following the end of disqualification. (In Northern Ireland it has been the norm, since April 1991, for convicted drink-drivers to be required to take a retest). This Act also introduced, as an experiment, the use of rehabilitation courses for offenders.

Publicity has long played a major part in drink-drive policy. National advertising campaigns have been run annually in Great Britain since 1976 and in Northern Ireland since the early 1980's. These normally use television with supporting print material and occasional use of radio and roadside hoardings. Market research is used before and after campaigns to track their effectiveness. Police and local authority road safety officers are involved in the campaign planning meetings and will frequently run their own campaigns in conjunction with the national campaign. The national campaigns have been successful in generating media interest and have also stimulated private sector activity in support of the drink-drive message. In particular, the Portman Group, established in 1989 by major UK drinks companies, runs its own campaigns as a complement to those of the Government. In Scotland, the Scottish Road Safety Campaign also plays an important part in campaigning against drink-driving.

There is ample evidence from nearly twenty years of market research of significant changes of attitude towards drinking and driving. Once generally tolerated, this is now widely regarded as a socially unacceptable activity.

Education and training has also had an important role to play. The use of anti-drink-drive material in schools and colleges has brought home the message to young drivers that drinking and driving do not mix. The driving theory test has provided a further means to promote the message. The question bank now includes a number of questions covering the effect of alcohol on driving.

The need for further measures

Despite the reduction in drink-drive related casualties, drink related accidents still comprise a high proportion of all road accidents. The statistics indicate that they account for a much higher proportion of fatal than of non-fatal injury accidents. In 1996 roughly 1 in 7 road deaths occurred in accidents involving drivers or motorcyclists with illegal levels of alcohol. So there is no doubt that drink-driving is still a major cause of casualties on the road. Moreover, in the last few years the steady downward trend of drink-related casualties has flattened out as the following table shows. (The numbers in this table are rounded up or down to the nearest 10, because the adjustment for non-reporting means that the numbers are not precise).

Estimates of accidents involving illegal alcohol levels and the consequent casualties adjusted for under reporting: 1986-1996





















































































*Provisional data. Final fatality data from Coroners are available for 1995 but 1996 estimates remain provisional until complete information for 1996 is available.

KSI - Killed and Seriously Injured

Graph: Estimates of accidents involving illegal alcohol levels and consequent casualties: 1986-1996

This suggests that the measures currently in place, while working effectively, are not sufficient to deliver a continuing improvement.

The primary objective is to secure better compliance from drivers, through self-policing as well as external enforcement, not only with the legal limit but with the firm advice not to drive while impaired by alcohol at any level. There are three main groups of driver which the Government sees as needing to be targeted because of poor compliance and high accident risk. The first is the hardened drinker, often well over the limit and often a repeat offender. Approximately half of convicted drink-drivers have blood alcohol levels in excess of 150mg/100ml. Research indicates that around 12 per cent of those convicted of a drink-drive offence commit a second offence within 10 years of the first. 10 There can, moreover, be difficulties in apprehending and dealing with the hardened drinker, who may demonstrate no obvious sign of impairment when driving (or when stopped and interviewed by the police). Yet there is also research evidence that even if drivers with a high level of alcohol appear to be in full control, as soon as the unexpected happens they are at far higher risk of an accident than a sober driver. 11

The second problem group are drivers whose blood alcohol is below the current limit but whose ability to drive safely is nevertheless impaired. The current drink-drive limit is too high to catch all those who drive while impaired by alcohol. It has been recognised for some years that, for most drivers, impairment begins (and hence accident risk increases) at much lower levels than 80mg. It is possible to prosecute and convict drivers who produce a negative breath test but whose driving is obviously impaired, under the offence of "driving while under the influence". Though it is rare for such drivers to be prosecuted simply for driving while impaired, those whose driving causes a death are liable to be charged with the "causing death" offence even if their blood alcohol was found to be below the 80mg limit and significant numbers are convicted. This strongly suggests that drinking by drivers in the 50-80mg range is a significant and largely hidden cause of accidents.

The third target group consists of young people - especially young men in their twenties - who continually tend to be disproportionately involved in drink-drive accidents.

A package of measures

The Government believes that a package of measures must be adopted to deal with these problems including both a continuation and better targeting of existing measures, and new measures. There are three main fronts on which the Government sees it as important to proceed:

  • improving enforcement;
  • improving the system of offences and penalties;
  • education, publicity and information.

The aim should be to ensure that the right groups are targeted.


Improving enforcement

Traffic rules are of little value unless the majority of road users comply with them willingly and there are adequate means to penalise the minority who do not. Much of the secret of the UK's success in reducing the scourge of drink-drive casualties lies in the fact that the majority of drivers respect the need for a legal limit for drink-driving and for tough sanctions against those who ignore it. Respect for the drink-drive rules is therefore all-important and the Government is keen to look at new and improved ways of securing this respect through effective enforcement.

Police breath-testing powers

One possibility would be to strengthen the powers of the police to undertake breath-tests, the main enforcement weapon against drink-driving. At present a police officer may stop any person driving a motor vehicle on the road, but the breath-testing powers are more specific. A police officer can require a breath test only if he has reasonable cause to suspect that the person has alcohol in his body, or has committed a moving traffic offence, or has been involved in an accident. This means that a police officer can stop any vehicle at any time, but can only require a breath test where one of those criteria applies. Case law has established that it is lawful for a police officer to stop a vehicle at random and form a suspicion of drinking on the basis of the subsequent interview with the driver.12 The powers are therefore wide, but not unrestricted.

Notwithstanding these restrictions, the police have achieved substantial increases in enforcement (see paragraph 4 above). They have also conducted intensive enforcement campaigns; in 1996 146,000 out of the annual total of 780,000 tests in England and Wales were required in December and in 1997-8 almost 200,000 tests were carried out during the more extended festive period campaign in Scotland. The powers, however, do not permit random or blanket enforcement: a police officer must have reasonable cause to suspect that the individual concerned meets one of the criteria mentioned above. It is sometimes suggested that this makes it particularly difficult to enforce the law against drivers who are able successfully to conceal that they have been drinking.

The Government does not consider that it would be right to give unrestricted powers to the police. While it is confident that the police would use their powers responsibly, it is important for confidence and trust in the police that the public should know that the police do not have powers which would be open to abuse, however unlikely that abuse might be. The Government considers, however, that there may be a case for allowing police officers to require a breath test without prior suspicion if that power is used only for a specified period at a particular location where it is known that there may be a problem, on the authority of a senior officer. A comparable power exists in section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was amended by the Knives Act 1997. As amended, it provides for police officers to stop and search people without prior suspicion but only within a specified area within the police area for a period up to 48 hours on the authority of a senior officer. The Government invites views on whether comparable powers to authorise breath testing without prior suspicion should be introduced.

Measures to prevent driving between the offence and court proceedings

When drivers are tested positive on an evidential machine at a police station, the police may detain them to prevent them driving while still above the limit. However, the driver is then free to drive until the court imposes disqualification. The prima facie evidence against the defendant in these cases is much stronger and less likely to be overturned in court than in other alleged traffic offences and delay in bringing the case before the court operates in favour of the defendant.

The Government proposes to use the Crime and Disorder Bill to implement a number of measures to reduce delays across the criminal justice system of England and Wales. These include proposals to improve case management in the magistrates courts and perhaps more importantly for this subject, for straightforward guilty pleas to be dealt with a day or two after charge. These should result in a substantial reduction in the time taken to complete cases. Once these measures are in place, their effect will be reinforced by the introduction of new statutory time limits for all cases.

There is no general power for defendants awaiting trial, or sentence, to be banned from driving. However, a court may already impose conditions to a grant of bail in criminal proceedings where it appears necessary to prevent the person from absconding, committing an offence, interfering with witnesses or otherwise obstructing the course of justice. A person bailed on a drink-driving charge could therefore be prohibited from driving by the court while on bail if in the court's opinion such a condition is necessary to prevent the defendant committing a further drink-driving offence. However, in R v Kwame (1975)13 it was said that, in imposing a bail condition that a defendant does not drive, the court should consider whether it might have unexpected or unjust results. For example a mandatory disqualification may be imposed upon conviction that cannot be reduced by the earlier period of disqualification on bail.

The courts also have powers in certain circumstances to impose an "interim disqualification", but these also are only in a very limited range of cases where the case is to be committed for sentence to a Crown Court or another Magistrates' Court, or in Scotland to the High Court, or to cover the period of any adjournment between conviction and sentence.

Where interim disqualification is used, the finally determined disqualification period is reduced by the period of disqualification already served, and the mandatory limits (eg 12 months for a drink-drive conviction) are deemed to be reduced by the same amount. It might be possible to introduce a similar provision in the case of defendants prohibited from driving under bail conditions, thus removing the problem identified in R v Kwame. Primary legislation would be needed for this. Views on this would be welcomed.

A radical approach which has sometimes been suggested would be to give new powers to the police, or the courts, to revoke or confiscate immediately the licences of drivers who had failed an evidential breath or blood test, at any rate in the more serious cases, eg when the driver had a recent previous drink-drive conviction or was well over the limit. Powers of this kind exist in several other countries. However, to give the police powers to confiscate a licence, even for a short period, without allowing the suspected offender to plead before a court, would run contrary to a fundamental principle of British justice and the separate roles of the police and the courts. There would also be practical problems in that there is no requirement in UK law for a driver to carry a driving licence, whereas in the countries which provide for immediate confiscation there is such a requirement. The Government is therefore not attracted to this option.

All in all, the prosecution of drink-drive offences imposes considerable burdens on the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, Procurators Fiscal and the Courts. Many of those charged plead guilty. Suggestions are made from time to time that there might be ways of cutting down the amount of police, prosecutor and court time. Examples of such suggestions are the possibility of carrying out more of these processes at the roadside (as technology develops to allow accurate readings from roadside breath-testing machines) and, for some offences at least, the possibility of conditional offers not to take court proceedings provided a specified penalty - such as a set period of disqualification and a fine - is accepted. Any alternative to the current procedures must, however, respect the seriousness with which these offences are regarded by the police, the courts and society in general. The different practices and procedures in the Scottish legal system must also be borne in mind. The Government is not committed to any such measure but would nevertheless welcome views on whether there are ways in which the prosecution of drink-drive offenders could be handled more efficiently, particularly for drivers who do not wish to contest the fact that they exceeded the legal limit, while safeguarding basic standards of criminal justice.

Ignition interlocks for repeat Drink-Drive offenders

Breath alcohol ignition interlock devices are used in several states of the USA, and also in Alberta, Canada, and have been trialled in Australia. They are generally applied to repeat offenders, either as an alternative to disqualification or in succession to a period of disqualification. More advanced models incorporate safeguards against persons other than the driver activating the ignition, though none is entirely proof against tampering or circumvention. The device may be calibrated at an alcohol level well below the legal limit (as is the practice in California). The device needs to be regularly downloaded and recalibrated (often at 3 monthly intervals) - this also safeguards against tampering.14

These devices could be helpful in dealing with recidivist drink-drivers (including those who drive while disqualified). Experience in the USA suggests that they are effective while the order is in force, with low rates of circumvention, but that reoffending occurs rapidly once the restriction is removed. Restrictions for one year seem to have no effect on subsequent behaviour; those for two or more years had a small effect. However, in Alberta, where the programme is more closely supervised, and supplemented by counselling, more long-term improvements have been experienced.15 (It is not known how much of the success is attributable to the counselling alone).

The cost of the device would be borne by the offender. American experience suggests that costs would be around £500, or £40 a month rental. The police would have the extra burden of checking that the relevant offenders were driving interlock-fitted vehicles (presumably there would have to be a licence endorsement) and with correctly calibrated interlock devices. Any necessary periodic calibration could probably be carried out by MOT Testing Stations, though the frequency would be higher than the annual MOT test and there might be a consequential need to inspect MOT garages more frequently, with cost implications.

Primary legislation would be needed to give the courts powers to order the use of an interlock device and to provide for type-approval. The devices are already being marketed for voluntary fitment within the UK - eg by fleet operators - though it is too early to say whether there will be significant interest.

On the whole, this does not seem an appropriate penal option for the UK at present. The fact that our courts are required to disqualify drink-drivers for long periods (and frequently do so for more than the prescribed minimum) suggests that there is not much need for such a device. The enforcement and monitoring procedures could be quite costly and bureaucratic. The Government view is that we should monitor experience elsewhere over a longer timescale before considering legislation here.

12 Chief Constable of Gwent v Dash [1986] {RTR 41).
1360 Cr App R 65
14A Clayton: Which Way Forward? A review of drink-driving countermeasures in selected countries worldwide. (London, Portman Group, July 1997).
15D Beirness: Evaluation of the Alberta Ignition Interlock Program. Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, Annecy, September 1997.

Improving the system of offences and penalties

The Government believes that by and large the existing structure of offences and penalties works reasonably well. Where a driver exceeds the legal limit on an evidential test, the evidence is difficult to dispute and very high conviction rates are obtained. As the court is informed of the breath test reading it is able to measure the severity of the offence according to the extent by which the limit is exceeded, and to scale its punishment as appropriate, though other aggravating or mitigating factors are also taken into account. Hence there is a high degree of consistency and proportionality in sentencing practice, which can only reinforce respect for the law.

However, the current system takes little account of the fact that the impairment of driving ability of most people begins at well below the current limit of 80mg. Although it has long been the policy of successive Governments to discourage all drinking and driving, there is no clear offence of drink-driving at levels below 80mg. Drivers who are obviously impaired at below that level can be prosecuted for "driving under the influence", but this is much harder to prove in the absence of an objective measurement.

Lowering the blood alcohol limit

The main argument which has traditionally been put in favour of retaining the current limit is that 80mg is the level where, on research evidence,16 the probability of being involved in accidents starts to increase rapidly, for all drivers and the majority of drivers killed with illegal levels of alcohol are well over the existing limit (in 1995, 14 per cent of all drivers killed had blood alcohol over 150mg, compared with only 6 per cent between 80 and 150mg)17 and about half of those convicted of drink-drive offences also have blood alcohol over 150mg.

In countries like the UK which have a legal limit set at 80mg, there is a scarcity of information about accidents involving drivers with significant but lower alcohol levels, except in the case of fatalities. However, special research projects have been undertaken to improve our understanding of the role of alcohol. A brief summary of the available data sources and the relevant research findings is at Annex 1 to this document.

Taking into account also the large body of international research into the subject, there can now be little doubt that most drivers are impaired at 50mg. For the average driver in the 50-80mg range, the risk is estimated at around twice or 2.5 times that for a sober driver. However, the risk of a fatal accident from blood alcohol rises far more rapidly than the risk of all severities of accident18 and this must also be taken into account, as must the propensity for accidents to involve the less experienced drivers who are more affected by alcohol.

What is more difficult and contentious is to estimate the casualty effect of a lower legal limit, since this requires assumptions not only about accident causation but also about compliance. The Department, with help from the Transport Research Laboratory, used a method outlined in Annex 2 to this document. Its tentative conclusions are that about 80 road users per year are killed in accidents where at least one driver or motorcyclist had blood alcohol between 50 and 80mg and that the overall effect of reducing the legal limit to 50mg would be a saving of 50 fatalities, 250 serious and 1200 slight injuries per year.

It is sometimes claimed that a reduction in the drink-drive limit could lead to a weakening of public support for drink-drive policy and a greater tolerance of drink-drive offenders. There is some evidence that this has happened in Sweden; however in that case, the reduction was from 50 to 20mg and it is perhaps understandable that such a low limit would put a strain on public acceptance. Even in Sweden, moreover, the change in the limit was accompanied by a fall in casualties.19 There is no evidence from any country of a reduction in the limit leading, perversely, to an increase in drink-related casualties as has sometimes been speculated.

The Government is therefore minded to make it an offence to drive with a blood alcohol limit of 50mg or over but would be interested to have views from consultees.

Costs of a lower drink-drive limit

There are no compliance costs for members of the public in a lower limit. However, there would be some public expenditure implications. The police would need to replace, recalibrate or reprogramme existing breath-testing equipment. Evidential breath testing equipment would need to be reprogrammed and the technical specification reassessed to ensure that the evidential veracity of the instrument is preserved. Similarly the gas supply for simulators would need to be manufactured and recalibrated to a different standard. Any effect on police running costs (and any consequential cost implications for the Crown Prosecution Service, Procurators Fiscal, the courts and legal aid), would depend on the level of enforcement and the number of drivers tested positive at the new limit. Because the evidence of a breath-testing machine is readily accepted in court, very few drink-drive cases are contested, and the cost of processing them is lower than for many other offences of comparable severity.

Penalties for a lower drink-drive limit

The courts have a wide degree of discretion on the level of fines to impose for drink-drive offences and the same applies to custodial sentences. The Government would not propose to change this. However, for driving disqualification the law prescribes a minimum period of 12 months for a first drink-drive or drug-drive offence, and of 3 years for any subsequent offence of that kind within 10 years of an earlier one. 20 The legislation gives courts a limited discretion (for special reasons) not to disqualify a person or to impose a lesser period but in practice they rarely do this.

It is for debate whether a virtually automatic 12 months disqualification can still be justified in the context of a 50mg limit, or whether there should be a shorter minimum period, or possibly penalty points only, for offences between 50mg and 80mg, with the 12 month disqualification being reserved for offences involving levels over 80mg. A single limit and a single penalty are clear and simple and easily understood, characteristics which have been a strength in dealing with the drink-drive problem. A minimum 12 month disqualification is also a powerful deterrent. On the other hand, as the degree of risk is less in the 50-80mg range and the risks rise particularly sharply at around 80mg, there is some logic in a lesser penalty for offenders between 50 and 80mg. This would be in line with the practice in most European countries, where disqualification (at least for a significant period) is normally only used for drivers with high alcohol levels.

The Government would welcome views on whether, in the event of lowering the legal limit to 50mg:

  • the current 12 months period of disqualification should be retained, or
  • for offences in the 50-80mg range there should be a reduced period of disqualification, or even a lesser penalty such as a number of penalty points.

Penalties for high risk offenders

Whatever the legal limit there remains a strong need to deal effectively with drivers who drink far in excess of the current drink-drive limit, and with repeat offenders. Legislation already gives the courts wide discretion to fine offenders up to £5000, or imprison them for up to 6 months, and in practice they tend to impose fines at the higher end of the range for those convicted at higher alcohol levels, and use imprisonment for those with very high levels or persistent offenders. Although minimum periods of disqualification are prescribed, there is no upper limit and the courts do disqualify the most serious offenders for much longer periods. This informal system, leaving a wide degree of discretion, already works reasonably well. The Government does not propose any change here.

There are already additional sanctions for the high risk groups. Offenders who have already been disqualified for a drink-drive offence in the preceding 10 years are subjected to a disqualification of at least 3 years on the next occasion (which may be reduced where there are "special reasons"). These repeat offenders, and also anyone convicted of an offence of driving with at least 200mg/100ml in blood, or of failing to provide a specimen without reasonable excuse, are categorised as "High Risk Offenders" and a special medical regime applies to them. At the end of their period of disqualification they are required to undergo a medical examination to satisfy the licensing authority's medical branch that they do not have a serious alcohol problem. The Government is not convinced that this sanction is well enough known and intends to give more publicity to the High Risk Offenders Scheme.

Drink-drive rehabilitation courses

Penalties are important, but rehabilitation should also play a leading part in the fight against drink-driving. One of the major recommendations of the North Committee Review on Road Traffic Law21 was that there should be a large-scale experiment in the use of courses to influence the attitudes of drivers who had committed drink-drive offences. The experiment would examine whether a group of offenders who had attended courses was less likely to reoffend than a similarly constituted control group who had not been given the opportunity to attend courses. Legislation for this purpose was enacted in the Road Traffic Act 1991, originally on an experimental basis in designated areas only (so that other similar areas could be used as a "control"). The courses are designed for drivers who have been convicted of drink-drive offences and disqualified for at least a year. Those who take part in, and successfully complete the courses, are eligible for a reduction of up to 25 per cent in their period of disqualification (normally a 12 month period reduced to 9 months). The course must have been completed 2 months before the expiry of this reduced period (ie normally 7 months after conviction).

This experiment began in 1993 and has been closely monitored from the outset. Results to date have been very encouraging, showing not only that those who attended courses were better informed about the effects of alcohol on driving, but also that they were less likely to reoffend. It is particularly encouraging that the "high risk offenders" and middle-aged drivers are among those who appear to have reduced their tendency to reoffend, as these groups have not been easily addressed by other methods.

The experimental period, originally due to terminate at the end of 1997, will now continue until the end of 1999 to allow a larger proportion of attendees to be monitored over a 3 year period. A Parliamentary Order would be needed, before the end of 1999, to bring the legislation into force permanently throughout Great Britain. Meanwhile, the Government has recently extended the number of areas designated for the experimental scheme from 29 to 175 and has approved further course providers. A similar provision in Northern Ireland legislation has recently come into force and experimental courses there are expected to begin during 1998.

If the limit were reduced for drink-drive offences and a lower disqualification allowed for offences in the lower range, consideration would also need to be given to how the rehabilitation scheme would apply to offenders in that group. Comments on the effectiveness of rehabilitation courses and ideas for extending or modifying the system of courses or the range of offenders to be sent on them would be welcome.

Special restrictions on young or novice drivers

It has been suggested a lower legal blood alcohol limit, should be imposed on new drivers, eg as learners and for the first two years after passing their driving test, or on drivers below a certain age. Restrictions of this kind exist, for example, in Austria, New Zealand, Victoria (Australia) and several US states. Typically the lower limit is 20mg though it is often described as a "zero limit" since, to be certain of complying, drivers are advised to avoid even a single measure of an alcoholic drink. Although the definition of a "novice driver" varies, the criterion used in the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995, ie a driver who first passed a driving test less than 2 years previously, is a typical one.

There is considerable international research evidence that inexperienced drivers are more adversely affected by alcohol, and at lower levels, than mature drivers, because they need to exercise more conscious control over their driving. Young drivers who are less experienced as drinkers may also be more at risk. US states which have imposed a lower limit for young drivers have experienced a more rapid decrease in fatalities than those which have not (although the legal age for drinking in the USA is generally 21 so the situation is not the same).

However, the story told by accident statistics is more complex. The data in Annex 3 shows that the problem of young (predominantly male) drivers who drink is not confined to "novices" or teenagers. Drink-driving appears to be more prevalent among the 20-24 age band than the 17-19. The teenage drivers have more drink-drive accidents per mile travelled than the 20-24s (comparing their accident statistics with average mileage travelled according to the 1993-5 National Travel Survey) but that is mainly because they have over twice as many accidents of all types per mile travelled.

The drink-drive problem therefore peaks among drivers in their twenties. The majority of drivers in their twenties, moreover, are no longer "novices" so any measure addressed at new drivers (as defined in the 1995 Act), or the under-20s, would not affect them. Allowing people in their twenties to drink more once they cease to be "novices", or more than those in their teens, could convey the wrong message at a time when they are increasing the amount of mileage they drive and are more likely to become involved in drink-drive accidents. It can be argued that it is important for drivers right from the beginning to be given responsibility for their behaviour, so as to develop the right habits.

Enforcement of a different limit for novice drivers would be difficult,if not impossible, in the absence of a requirement to carry either licences or identity cards - the countries which have a lower limit for young or novice drivers tend to require the carrying of an identity document.

The Government therefore considers that a specially low limit for novice drivers is of doubtful merit, but would be grateful for views.

Railway and tramway personnel

The Transport and Works Act 1992 contains an alcohol limit applying (in Great Britain) to drivers and certain other personnel employed on railways, tramways and similar forms of transport which is identical to the one for drivers of motor vehicles. Undertakings were given by the then Government while the Bill was passing through Parliament that, in the event of a change to the motor vehicle drivers' limit, the limit under the 1992 Act would be changed in parallel. (It should be borne in mind that the 1992 Act applies to drivers of trams and guided buses who share the same road space as drivers of motor vehicles and could be involved in accidents with them, hence there is a practical advantage in consistency). The Government therefore proposes that any reduction of the drink-drive limit should be matched by a reduction in the alcohol limit for these occupations. The penalties for drink-driving offences, apart from disqualification which is irrelevant, apply also to corresponding offences under the 1992 Act. No change to these penalties is proposed.

16 R F Borkenstein et al: op cit
17 Road Accidents Great Britain: 1996, Table 2i, p34 (London, The Stationery Office, 1997).
18 This fact is well documented by statistics in the UK and elsewhere. A possible explanation lies in another American study: P Zador: Alcohol-related relative risk of fatal driver injuries in relation to driver age and sex. (In: Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol.52, No.4, 1991).
19L Aberg: Behaviours and opinions of Swedish drivers before and after the 0.02% legal BAC limit of 1990. (In: Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, Cologne, 1992, published 1993).
20 For an offence of "being in charge", however, there is no obligatory disqualification; the courts may impose disqualification for any period at their discretion, otherwise 10 penalty points are attached to the licence. Nevertheless, these offences are taken into account in considering whether there has been a previous drink-drive offence within 10 years.
21 Department of Transport/Home Office: op.cit.

Education, publicity and information


The Government sees it as essential that young people should be taught as early as possible about the dangers of drink-driving. Education must therefore begin at school, well before the driving age is reached. The school years are a critical time in the development of young people's skills, attitudes and behaviour.

Government Departments, local authorities and others make widely available educational material on drinking and driving for secondary school children, in a variety of formats from theatre productions to videos, worksheets and leaflets. This material can be used by teachers in personal and social education courses, which seem to present an ideal opportunity for students to explore aspects of drinking and driving behaviour such as peer group pressure, the effects of alcohol and consequences of actions on themselves and others. But the material can also be used to incorporate messages on drink-driving into English, Science, Maths and Physical Education courses.

It is up to teachers how to use this material. The Government already urges them to make as much use as possible of it, and all the relevant UK Government Departments will cooperate to ensure that the drink-drive message is given due weight along with other messages about sensible drinking.

In addition, to help teachers know what is available, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions commissioned a database of road safety education linked resources for use by local authority Road Safety Officers, who liaise with schools on road safety matters, and by the schools themselves. This database, which is updated annually, includes over 80 existing types of teaching material concerned with or including drinking and driving which can be linked with and used for teaching subjects in the national curricula. A recent survey found that the database is widely available and used by Road Safety Officers, and the Government is considering ways of disseminating it more effectively.


Education must be complemented by continuing publicity. Publicity has long played a major part in the Government's anti drink-drive strategy. Targeting the right audience is an important part of the strategy: most recent campaigns have focused on young men, particularly those in their early twenties who, according to statistical evidence, are at greatest risk of involvement in a fatal drink-related accident. The 1995/96 "Dave" campaign, featuring a young man severely disabled by a drink-drive accident, is an example of this approach. It is clear, however, that the drink-drive problem is by no means confined to this age group; in particular the high risk offenders tend to have a higher age profile (and are harder to influence). There is also a danger that drink-drivers who are not young and male will assume that the message does not apply to the likes of them. It is important, therefore to vary the tone and the target group from time to time, to influence both high risk offenders and the "social drinkers" who too often assume that they are not a danger. The 1997 Christmas campaign was an attempt to remind people who regard themselves as responsible about drink-driving, but who nevertheless drive after drinking, that the message applies to them too.

The Government fully intends to continue high-profile campaigns so that the pressure of publicity is kept up. It will keep under review its campaign strategy to ensure that the right target audiences are reached and appropriate means used to reach them.

Information on units and effects of alcohol

So far, Government publicity and educational material has concentrated on the message that all drink-driving is dangerous, and has not attempted to lay down guidelines about the risks associated with particular levels of alcohol. There are sharp differences between the alcohol tolerance between the sexes, and between different individuals of the same sex. Women reach a dangerously high blood alcohol level affecting their driving on fewer drinks than men; and between people of the same sex the absorption of alcohol also depends on size, weight and a number of other factors. There has also been a concern that if guidelines were issued, eg how many units were likely to take people over the limit, it would be construed as encouraging people to drink up to the limit - whereas it is clear almost any alcohol can affect driving.

However, some other countries have taken a different view. In Australia, for instance, wide publicity is given to the number of units which different drinks represent, and to how long alcohol remains in the body. See examples below.

Card 1


Card 2

These guidelines have apparently been interpreted responsibly, with people recognising them as no more than guidelines. Especially if a lower limit of 50mg were introduced, there might be a case for giving more guidance on how much people could drink while remaining within the limit and how long it takes for alcohol to be eliminated from the body.

The Government invites views on the possibility of wide dissemination of publicity material showing more clearly the quantity of a particular drink which would be likely to take male and female drivers over the limit, and how quickly the alcohol would be eliminated. In particular, views are sought on whether such publicity would or would not be likely to encourage people to drink up to the limit and drive.

Five of the UK's largest drinks companies announced, on 9 October 1997, that they will be introducing a voluntary scheme of unit labelling on their packaged products specifically to complement the Government's Sensible Drinking messages. The Department of Health will be working closely with the industry on the best ways of improving the availability of advice on sensible drinking so that consumers understand the significance of unit information in the context of these health messages. This might also be helpful for drivers. At present, EU legislation prohibits the labelling of wine bottles with unit information. The Government has registered its views with the European Commission about this and are seeking amendment to the Wine Labelling Regulations, at least to allow further optional consumer information to be put on wine bottles.

Self-test breathalysers

As a publicity measure in conjunction with its lowering of the drink-drive limit to 50mg in 1995, the French government introduced commercially sponsored kits, priced at well under £1, enabling drivers to test their own alcohol limit. Some 3 million of these kits have been sold: they can be used once only, and should not be used until at least 20 minutes have elapsed after drinking. It has been suggested that the UK should adopt a similar campaign in the event of reducing the legal drink-drive limit.

There is at present no legal impediment in the UK to the supply and use of breath-testing machines or kits. A number of reasonably accurate devices have been installed in pubs, clubs etc (their current cost is around £800), but they have not proved popular and there is some anecdotal evidence that they have not been used in the responsible manner intended. Disposable self-testing kits of the French sort are now being marketed in the UK for a few pounds, and particularly targeted at the "morning after" problem - to allow drivers who have been drinking the previous night to check whether their blood alcohol level has fallen below the legal limit.

The Government sees both benefits and risks in these self-testing devices. In principle they allow individuals to make an informed decision about whether they are in a position to drive after drinking and would reduce the risk of unwittingly driving whilst over the limit. They could also give people a better idea of their own individual sensitivity to alcohol. This could be a useful educational exercise in conjunction with the introduction of a lower limit. However, the risks are that drivers might be inclined to drink more if they could measure the alcohol level more accurately. Drink-drive publicity in the UK has focused on safety rather than on compliance with the law, and the underlying advice is not to drink at all before driving. This message could well be diluted by the promotion of self-testing devices which could encourage people to drink up to the legal limit, rather than stop drinking as soon as they feel their driving would be impaired (which in most cases would be much sooner).

Self-test devices could not be totally accurate, since they would not be used in standardised conditions, and would only measure the level of alcohol at the time. They could lead to a false sense of security, particularly by a driver who had been drinking recently and whose body was still absorbing alcohol. This problem does not arise when the devices are used "the morning after", when alcohol is being eliminated.

The Government on balance considers that these devices would play at best a marginal role in reducing road casualties, and while it recognises their educational potential for some drivers sees no need actively to promote them. However, it would welcome views.

Consultation Procedure

Please send your comments on these proposals, no later than 8 May 1998, to:

P H Openshaw
Road Safety Division
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
Zone 2/13
Great Minster House
76 Marsham Street

The Department may be asked to make public the contents of the replies it receives to this consultation paper. When you send in your comments, therefore, please could you state whether you would be content for your reply to be summarised if we are asked to divulge what was in the responses we received. We would not publish the actual text of your reply.

Annex 1 - The sources of data about drink-driving in the UK

A useful critique of the data sources on drink-drive accidents and drink-drivers in Great Britain is found in a Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) report Drinking and driving in Great Britain - a review. 22 The following is a brief summary of the more accessible published sources with references to other more specialist documents.

Road accidents involving alcohol

For several years, the annual Government publication Road Accidents Great Britain 23 has included extensive analyses of the latest year's drink-drive statistics together with some tables showing trends over a number of years. They are derived partly from the standard statistical form on which Police in Great Britain record accidents (STATS 19) and partly from data supplied by Coroners in England and Wales and from Procurators Fiscal in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) has responsibility for collecting road traffic accident data and publishing an annual report. The statistical form used (T1) is very similar to the STATS 19 form in Great Britain.

The STATS 19 form includes a box (2.23) in which to mark whether a roadside breath test was requested and if so, whether the test was positive or negative. The form is reproduced in Road Accidents Great Britain 24. From this source it is possible to calculate the number of accidents and consequent casualties in which at least one driver tested positive, ie had exceeded the legal alcohol limit. In April 1996 the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) recommended that all drivers involved in accidents, whether injury or damage only, should be breath-tested. In injury road accidents many local police forces carry out breath tests on all involved drivers as routine practice, but there are some local police forces which have not yet adopted this practice. To take account of missing data (eg cases where a driver suspected of drinking had failed to stop and had not been breath-tested within a reasonable time of the accident) various minor adjustments to the statistics are made before publication. A full account of the procedure used for non-fatal casualties is found in a report by the TRL.25 This data source does not give any indication of the presence of alcohol at levels below the legal level. Nor does it indicate the amount by which the limit was exceeded.

In the case of fatal casualties an additional data source is available from Coroners in England and Wales and from Procurators Fiscal in Scotland. A standard procedure in a post-mortem investigation required by these officers is to measure the blood alcohol level. The results are conveyed to the TRL for statistical analysis on a voluntary basis, for which reason returns are often made late, or not at all. A similar arrangement exists between Coroners and the RUC in Northern Ireland. The results are linked to the STATS 19 record so that all casualties and accident details in fatal drink-drive accidents can be identified. To compensate for the missing data, statistical adjustments are made, assuming that the trends are uniform between the areas that have made returns and those that have not. Provisional data published in Road Accidents Great Britain for the relevant year are often very incomplete and are corrected in subsequent annual editions as further returns are made. Despite the incompleteness of the data from this source it is extremely valuable in supplying information about blood-alcohol below the legal limit. It shows that, in the three year period 1993-5 around 2 per cent of drivers and around 3 per cent of motorcycle riders who were killed in road accidents had blood alcohol levels above 50mg but under 80mg.

Breath-testing statistics

The Home Office has for many years published annual statistical bulletins giving details of breath tests conducted by police in England and Wales.26 These tables show the number of screening (roadside) tests and the number and percentage that were positive (over the limit) or where the driver refused to provide a sample. There are also breakdowns by month and by police force area. Unlike the data published in Road Accidents Great Britain, this includes breath tests of drivers not involved in an injury accident: the other criteria for testing are that a constable has reasonable suspicion that a driver has committed an offence involving a moving vehicle, or that a driver has been drinking, or that a driver was involved in a non-injury road accident. There is no similar publication relating to Scotland. However, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland release each year information about the number of breath tests conducted during the festive period drink-drive campaign. In the 1997-98 campaign, almost 200,000 breath tests were administered, of which 0.6% were positive or refusals. Details of breath tests conducted by police in Northern Ireland are published in the RUC Chief Constable's annual report.

Drink-drive prosecutions, convictions and sentences

The Home Office produces annual tables of motoring offences, including offences involving driving under the influence of drink or drugs.27 Again these relate to England and Wales only. They provide information about the number of prosecutions and convictions for drink-drive offences and the types of sentence imposed (including disqualification and endorsement). Offences are classified into broad "offence groups" and with one exception the drink-drive offences are in group 3: "Driving etc. after consuming alcohol or taking drugs", hence some drug-driving offences not involving alcohol will be included in the totals. However, the offence of causing death by careless driving under influence of drink or drugs is in offence group 1: "Causing death or bodily harm". Some, but not all, of the tables subdivide these groups into the specific offences so that it is possible to single out the drink-drive offences in group 1 and the drug-drive offences in group 3.

These Supplementary Tables relate to a single year only. A Home Office statistical bulletin, also issued annually28, does give some time series tables, but relating only to the Offence Groups as a whole.

The Scottish Office also produces an annual statistical bulletin of motoring offences, including offences involving driving under the influence of drink or drugs.29 The offences covered in the analyses are those classified as motor vehicle offences in the Scottish Office Home Department's classification of crimes and offences. This bulletin relates primarily to a single year, but some series tables are included which account for the numbers of offences, but not the sentence imposed. The Scottish Police also collected data on offenders caught during their 1994-95 Christmas Drink-Drive Campaign i.e. those not solely involved in accidents. This covered almost 1,000 offenders and looked at reasons for being stopped, place and time of accident, characteristics of drink-drivers, but not alcohol levels. In Northern Ireland, the RUC Chief Constable's annual report includes tables of motoring offences, including drink related offences.

Research data

Because the statistical information collected routinely does not cover many issues of importance to drink-drive policy, a number of more detailed research projects have been carried out for the Government, many of them by the TRL. These are also reviewed in the TRL publication first cited above.30 Most important as data sources are the roadside surveys undertaken between 1988 and 1990. These took breath samples (on a voluntary basis) of all drivers passing selected sites. Only about 0.8 per cent of those asked refused to provide a sample, and only slightly more than 1 per cent of those tested were found to be over the legal limit - this varied from just under 0.5 to over 1.6 per cent in the ten separate areas surveyed. This survey also shows that 2.3 per cent had breath alcohol levels equivalent to blood alcohol between 40 and 80mg/100ml.

Another important source is the study of the incidence of alcohol among road traffic accident victims attending the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford in 1988-9.31 This found that 5.9 per cent of the drivers tested had an alcohol level above the legal limit. (11.3 per cent of the men and 2.9 per cent of the women). A further 2.1 per cent (2.9 per cent of men and 0.3 per cent of women) had breath alcohol levels equivalent to blood alcohol between 40 and 80mg/100ml.

22 G Maycock: Drinking and driving in Great Britain - a review. TRL Report 232. Crowthorne, Transport Research Laboratory, 1997.
23 The latest of these is Road Accidents Great Britain: 1996 - The Casualty Report, published by The Stationery Office, London. (August 1997). Chapter 2, pp26-34, deals with drink-driving.
24op cit. page 142.
25 J Broughton: The Actual Number of Non-Fatal Drink/Drive Accidents. Project Report 40. Crowthorne, Transport Research Laboratory, 1993.
26 These are available, free of charge, from Home Office, Information and Publications Group, Room 1308, Apollo House, 36 Wellesley Road, Croydon, CR9 3RR. The latest Breath Test statistics: England and Wales 1996, is Issue 12/97, published 21 May 1997.
27 Offences Relating to Motor Vehicles England and Wales 1995: Supplementary Tables (and earlier years) Available from the address given in footnote 26 above.
28 Motoring Offences: England and Wales 1995, Issue 24/96, available from the address given in footnote 26 above.
29 Scottish Office: Statistical Bulletin: Motor Vehicle Offences In Scotland 1994 (CrJ/1996/1). Available from Stationery Office bookshops. Statistics for 1995 and 1996 will be available shortly.
30See footnote 22.
31 J T Everest et al.: Drinking behaviour and breath alcohol concentrations of road accident casualties. Research Report 311. Crowthorne, Transport Research Laboratory, 1991.

Annex 2 - The estimated effect on casualties of lowering the legal alcohol limit to 50mg

The effect on road casualties of the lower blood alcohol limit is determined by the way in which drivers respond to the change and the effect of that response on their accident risk. The likelihood of an accident rises according to the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream and the rate of increase is much higher for fatal accidents than for non-fatals. For drivers in the 50-80mg range, the risk of a non-fatal accident is around 2 to 2.5 times as high as for a sober driver: for a fatal accident the risk is about 6 times as high. Our understanding of the risk factors is derived mainly from the "Grand Rapids" study of 196232 but has been validated by much later research33 (on the whole more recent studies show a slightly steeper risk curve - ie risk increasing more rapidly at any given level of alcohol - than that study showed). The increased risk is not due solely to bad driving by the inebriated driver (eg defective control of steering), but also to the impairment in that driver's ability to react quickly and appropriately to other traffic hazards, hence the risk is increased even where another road user was more "at fault" than the drinking driver. This also enhances the severity of an accident, so that a collision which a sober driver would not have been able to avoid entirely is still more likely to lead to a serious or fatal casualty where the driver has been drinking.

All relevant studies of drink-driving show that the distribution of blood alcohol levels among a driving population (or a subset, eg accident-involved drivers) follows a regular curve, ie it does not peak at around the legal limit of the time. This suggests that drivers may respond to the introduction of, or a change in a legal limit by a generalised moderation of their drinking but without attempting to measure precisely how much they can drink within a limit and keeping to this. (In fact it is difficult for an individual to calculate this with any precision because the effect of alcohol depends on a number of other metabolic factors as well as the physical characteristics of the individual). This general rule presumably does not hold good at either extreme of the range - the uncontrolled heavy drinker or the total or near-total abstainer - but it seems to do so for a fairly wide band of drink-drivers.

In the investigation of a death, Coroners or Procurators Fiscal may instruct reports which reveal the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of persons killed in road accidents, whether above or below the current legal limit of 80mg. 34 From this data, an estimate has been made of the number of fatalities in accidents where the most inebriated driver had a BAC between 50 and 80mg. The figure fluctuates from year to year, but averages at around 100 per year. Given a risk factor as 5 times that of a sober driver (ie slightly more conservative than stated above), one would expect 80 of these fatalities to be attributable to alcohol.

It is likely that a significant proportion of these drivers are deliberately remaining below the legal limit and would drink less if the limit were lowered. It would not be unreasonable to assume that, if the limit were set at 50mg, one half of them would reduce their drinking to between 30mg and 50mg, so staying on the right side of the law. This would reduce their risk of being involved in a fatal accident to between a half and a third of the previous level. As a result, the number of fatalities caused by this group of drivers would fall by about 30.

A similar calculation may be made for those with a blood alcohol level of between 80mg and 110mg. These are less numerous but because of their higher accident risk, cause about as many road deaths - nearly all of which are attributable to their drinking. It is reasonable to assume that some of these drivers exceed the limit despite trying to stay on the right side of the law and would be likely to reduce their drinking if the limit were lowered. If half of them halved their risk by reducing their drinking to between 50mg and 80mg (which would still be at an illegal level) a further 25 lives would be saved each year. Adding this to the 30 lives in paragraph 4 would give a total of 55, though it would be safer to assume 50 in aggregate.

These calculations exclude two other possible sources of fatality reduction. One is fatalities caused by drivers whose BAC was between 50 and 80mg but who were not themselves killed - under present law they would have been breath-tested negative, hence their BAC would be unknown. There is no precise way of estimating the number of fatalities caused by these drivers, and no attempt has been made to do so, but they could be quite considerable. Roadside surveys conducted at various sites around Great Britain between 1988-90 (in which virtually every driver was asked voluntarily to take a breath test, and only 0.8% refused to do so) 2.3% of those tested had breath alcohol equivalent to BACs between 40 and 80mg and only 1.2% had breath alcohol over the legal limit.35

The second exclusion is drivers involved in fatal accidents at BAC levels above 110mg - while few in number, the risk factor is very high. For the purpose of this calculation it has been assumed that lowering the limit would have no effect on them and that other measures (enforcement-related or involving rehabilitation) would be needed to reduce their numbers. However, it is likely that some of them would reduce their drink-driving, if only because of peer pressure from their drinking companions. By no means all in this group are hardened regular drinkers, as surveys have shown. Research shows that in some jurisdictions lowering the limit has affected accidents in this range, and in others there has been no significant effect.36 Hence, for reasons of caution, it has been assumed there would be no change.

The estimate of 50 fatalities saved per year - a saving somewhat below 10 per cent - therefore depends on a combination of analysis and assumption about behaviour. A degree of caution has been built into the assumptions and the actual effect could well be higher than claimed.

The estimates of savings in serious and slight casualties assume a similar proportional decrease. Historic data shows that the trends in each severity category tend to shadow each other, so that is not an unreasonable assumption, even though there is less direct evidence to build on. This would translate into 250 fewer serious injuries and 1200 fewer slight injuries per year.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions uses a standard method of valuation of road accidents for cost-benefit anaylsis which is updated annually.37 On this basis the estimated savings from a lower drink-drive limit would be worth over £75 million a year to society, giving an extremely favourable benefit-cost ratio whatever reasonable assumptions are made about enforcement costs. This also compares very favourably with the potential for reducing casualties, particularly deaths, of any other single affordable road safety measure.

32 See footnote 2.
33 P Zador, op. cit (see footnote 18), comparing single vehicle accidents of sober drivers with those of drivers with BAC between 50 and 90mg, calculates a ninefold increase in risk of a fatality.
34 For further information on these data sources, see paragraph 4 of Annex 1 above.
35 For further details of the roadside surveys, see paragraph 10 of Annex 1 above, and G Maycock, op. cit (Footnote 22).
36 C Brooks and D Zaal: Effects of a reduced alcohol limit for driving (in: Utzelmann, Berghaus and Kroj (eds): Proceedings of 12th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, Cologne, 28 September - 2 October 1992, pp 1277-1288) found an effect in Australian Capital Territory among drivers above the previous limit. A J McLean and others: Reduction in the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05: effects on drink-driving and alcohol-related crashes in Adelaide (in: Kloeden and McLean (eds): Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, Adelaide, 1995, pp 373-377) found no such effect in Adelaide, South Australia.
37 Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions: Highways Economic Note No. 1 (August 1997): 1996 Valuation of Road Accidents.

Annex 3 - Drink-drive: Young offenders

The following data are relevant to the question of drink-driving among the younger driver and support the view that the problem is greater among drivers in their early to mid twenties than among those in their late teens:

the 1990 roadside survey referred to in paragraph 10 of Annex 1, comprising 13,000 drivers selected at random, found that 0.3% of 16-19 year olds and 0.8% of 20-24 year olds were over the legal limit;38

  • a 1992 Transport Research Laboratory survey of a sample of police prosecution records in 3 police force areas showed that, among those prosecuted for drink-drive offences, 11.2% of the 16-19 year olds and 17.3% of the 20-24 year olds had blood alcohol levels of 200mg or more (ie at least two and a half times the legal limit);39
  • averaging over the years 1986-95, the percentage of drivers killed in accidents who were over the legal limit were, among 16-19 year olds 14.9% and among 20-24 year olds 28.6%;40
  • the breath test failure rate in 1996, among drivers tested following injury accidents, was 3.5% for under 20s and 5% for 20-24 year olds (for 25-29 year olds it was 3.9%).41

All these findings suggest a problem which is considerably worse among those in their early to mid twenties than among the youngest age group of drivers, in terms of propensity to drink above the limit, propensity to drink far in excess of the limit, and involvement in fatal accidents. Moreover, this is a consistent trend over time showing that it is not simply a matter of one cohort of drivers born at a certain time being more or less responsible than another.

However, when one takes into account the relative mileage of the different age groups (as measured by the National Travel Survey of 1993-5) it is found that drivers in the 17-19 age group had 24 drink-drive injury accidents per 100 million miles driven, whereas for 20-24 year olds the rate was 16 per 100 million miles (for 25-29 year olds the corresponding figure was 9, and for all ages of driver, 5).42

This evidence, which appears to conflict with all the other evidence, presumably reflects the greater involvement of 17-19 year olds in road accidents of all kinds.

In terms of drink-drive policy, the implications are twofold:

  1. there would be little point in adopting any special measures for young (or novice) drivers unless they applied to all ages up to 24 or 25, yet this would be far out of line with the age limits of other protective or restrictive legal provisions applying to "young persons";
  2. so far as education and publicity are concerned, all under-25 drivers (and potential drivers) must be regarded as a target group, not only because of the high accident risk among the under-20s but also because of the need to persuade them, more effectively than in the past, not to increase their drink-driving in their twenties.

38 J T Everest et al: Roadside surveys of drinking and driving: England and Wales 1990. TRL Research Report 31 9. (Crowthorne, Transport Research Laboratory, 1990).
39 J T Everest: A comparison of drink/drive offending between three police force areas. Transport Research Laboratory Project Report PR/SRC/S2/93 (1993, unpublished).
40 Derived from successive annual editions of Road Accidents Great Britain (London, The Stationery Office).
41 Road Accidents Great Britain 1996, Table 2f, p32 (London, The Stationery Office, 1997).
42 Ibidem, Table 2g, p33.


This paper has been prepared with the assistance of the following Government Departments:

Home Office
The Scottish Office
Welsh Office
The Cabinet Office
Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland
The Crown Office
Lord Chancellor's Department
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Department of Health
Department for Education and Employment

We also acknowledge the permission granted by the Australian Federal Office of Road Safety to publish the illustration in the Education, Publicity and Information section

1 Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions: Road Safety: Towards Safer Roads (October 1997).

2 R F Borkenstein et al: The Role of the Drinking Driver in Traffic Accidents (Bloomington, Indiana University, Department of Police Administration, 1964; revised edition published in Blut-Alkohol Vol II, Supplement 1, 1974)

3 Equivalent measures are 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath, and 107 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres in urine. For simplicity, blood alcohol measures are used consistently in this document.

4 Road Accidents Great Britain: 1996 - The Casualty Report (London, The Stationery Office, 1997) Table 2b, p29. Percentages for years 1989-95 range from 18 to 21.

5 G Maycock: Drinking and driving in Great Britain - a review. TRL Report 232. (Crowthorne, Transport Research Laboratory, 1997). See also Annex 1 below.

6 In Northern Ireland, some 9390 roadside breath tests were carried out in 1996. In Scotland, year-round figures are not readily available but during the 1996-97 festive season drink-drive campaign - lasting some six weeks - 133,679 tests were carried out, compared with 7,810 in a similar campaign in 1986-87.

7 Offences of "being in charge" rather than driving or attempting to drive, carry lower penalties, a maximum custodial sentence of 3 months and a fine of up to £2500. The offence of failing to provide a roadside breath specimen - as distinct from an evidential one at a police station - carries a maximum fine of £1000. These categories are not included among the "ordinary" offences in the figure in paragraph 6.

8 Department of Transport/Home Office: Road Traffic Law Review Report (London, HMSO, 1988). This relates to the law of Great Britain only, but many of the recommendations have now been adopted in the law of Northern Ireland.

9 A similar offence has recently been introduced in the legislation of Northern Ireland and also carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

10 Clayton: Unpublished research report for DETR.

11 M W Bud Perrine: Alcohol tolerance, Dependence and Traffic Safety Dangers (In: Drinking and Driving - An Avoidable Evil? Lübeck, Gustav Fischer Verlag, 1997)