Frequently Asked Questions

North Review Report - Questions and Answers

Drink Driving

Key Messages

Questions & Answers

How much can I drink and stay within a 50 mg/100ml limit?

Alcohol at any level impairs driving. So don’t-drink-and-drive is the right message. The evidence we’ve seen and heard, suggests that people can drink substantially and stay within the current limit, even though they are impaired.

People’s response to the same level of alcohol will vary with age, gender, weight, time of day, the time taken to consume the alcohol, whether they eat too, their liver function and other variables.

Given all of this uncertainty, it would be misleading to specify a precise limit to which people can drink. But 50 mg/100ml is not zero, nor even the ‘practical zero’ of 20 mg/100ml which other nations have introduced.

But I have noted the misleading stories in the media that people will be at risk of breaking the law if they drive on a single drink and I am confident that nobody will breach a 50 mg/100ml limit on one pint of standard strength beer, one small glass of standard strength wine or one standard strength short measure of spirits.

Why do we need new initiatives on drink driving when we already have one of the best records in the world on drink driving and on road safety generally?

Despite Great Britain’s status as a world leader, there are still seven deaths a day on our roads and an estimate 430 deaths a year due to drink driving over the current limit, leaving aside those which are due to alcohol below the current limit. The number of drink drive deaths is greater than that for other issues of major public concern such as knife crime.

We owe it to ourselves to consider what proportionate action we can take to reduce the number of road deaths and I have come to the view that reducing the drink drive limit would save tens, maybe even hundreds of lives a year, and hundreds more serious injuries. Moreover, it is clear from polling that the public supports a reduction in the limit to 50 mg/100ml.

But these moderate drinkers below the current limit aren’t the problem are they? Why don’t you do something about those who are grossly over the current limit and much more likely to kill and maim?

It’s certainly true that the risk associated with driving under the influence of alcohol rises steeply the more alcohol has been consumed. That’s why the Review recommends a suite of action in respect of high-risk offenders - repeat offenders, offenders over 2 1/2 times the legal limit and those who refuse to provide a specimen:

It is also true, though, that lives can be saved be reducing alcohol impairment among drivers below the current limit, given that we know that a driver is six times more likely to die with a blood alcohol concentration between 50 and 80 mg/100ml than with zero blood alcohol.

Don’t we just need better enforcement of the current drink driving limit?

We do need to improve enforcement. Our rates of testing drivers are much lower than other nations. That is why we have proposed a number of measures to streamline the criminal justice procedures for drink driving cases, so that traffic police can spend more time on the streets and less processing cases in the station and so that evidence of the alcohol level of a driver can be found as close as possible to that at the time of driving:

How can you justify making this imposition on sensible drinkers when the estimates of the lives to be saved are so wildly different?

The estimates of lives to be saved are made on very different bases. One, by the NICE, estimates the number of lives to be saved in the range of [144 – 175], on the basis of the experience from Australia and elsewhere in Europe, that behaviour among some of those drinking and driving at all levels would be affected. The other, a more conservative assessment, was on the basis that only those just under and just over the current limit would be affected.

My approach has been not to ascribe undue accuracy to these estimates, but to consider the broad sense that they give of lives and injuries to be saved. As a result, I am convinced that tens and possibly hundreds of lives and certainly hundreds of serious injuries stand to be saved by a reduction of the limit to 50 mg/100ml.

Moreover, the evidence is clear that drivers are significantly impaired at alcohol levels between 50 mg/100ml and 80 mg/100ml. Such drivers are six times more likely to die at the wheel than those with no alcohol in their system.

You say that the public is in favour of a lower limit. What’s the evidence?

The AA/Populus panel represents the views of almost 17,500 AA members and found 66% in favour of lowering the drink drive limit, with one fifth (20%) opposed.

A survey by Brake and Direct Line of 800 drivers also found 71% supporting the reduction of the current limit. 55% of those in the Brake/Direct Line survey supported a zero limit.

Indeed, the public seems to take a very hard line on drinking and driving generally. The British Social Attitudes Survey cites 71% of people polled favouring a period of 5 years disqualification for drink-drive offences.

Why no lower limit for the young?

This was the toughest element of the Review. Drivers under the age of 25 have a relative risk of being involved in a fatal collision while impaired by alcohol which is six times greater than might be expected from the miles they drive. There is therefore a strong case for a lower limit for these drivers.

However, the elevated risk applies until age 30 years and I am not aware of any legal age restriction which applies to so late an age. There are practical problems in enforcing such a limit, as drivers are not obliged to carry driving licences, so the police would struggle to obtain accurate details of driver age. And many organisations argued for the simplicity of a single drink drive limit and a single minimum period of disqualification.

Given that the international evidence suggests that the greatest effect of a lower limit would be on these young drivers, I have recommended that the 50 mg/100ml limit is introduced, with a review of the need for a lower limit for the young some 5 years later, when the new pattern in casualties can be assessed.

Why no lower limit for professional drivers?

The evidence shows that drivers of buses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles and HGVs are many times less likely to be found to be drink-driving in accidents than drivers of other classes of vehicles. This appears to be as a result of two kinds of self-regulation: by drivers themselves, fearing loss of licences and livelihood; and by transport companies enforcing a regime in respect of driving and alcohol as part of the conditions of employment.

Given the benefits of having a clear and consistent drink drive limit and minimum period of disqualification, there therefore seems to be no compelling reason to introduce a different limit for professional drivers.

Why not a zero limit for all?

A genuine ‘zero’ limit would [run a perceived] risk [of] incriminating those using certain substances – e.g. medicines or mouthwashes – which have a low level of alcohol. However, the Review has considered a 20 mg/100ml limit as an ‘effective’ zero, as implemented in other nations, including Sweden.

There is certainly a case for this, given that we know that any level of alcohol impairs driving. But in order to be effective, a new law needs to have public opinion behind it. There is good evidence of public support for a 50 mg/100ml limit from public polling, and there was a great deal of consensus in favour of moving to a 50 mg/100ml limit among those experts from whom I took evidence.

To move from an 80 mg/100ml limit under which I believe that some people can drink substantially and inappropriately to a 20 mg/100ml limit under which people could not risk a drink at all before driving would be too great a leap. I do not see the weight of public or interest group opinion behind a 20 mg/100ml limit and I consider that moving to a 20 mg/100ml limit would therefore risk the sizeable consensus of opinion supporting national moves to combat drink driving. A 50 mg/100ml limit is the natural next step.

Isn’t random breath testing a diabolical liberty?

I do not believe that most drivers would object to being liable to being stopped and breathalysed if they believed that it would reduce current levels of drink driving. Seventy-nine per cent of the respondents to an AA survey were in favour of the police being able to breathalyse a driver at any time.

My proposal is that police be given powers to breath-test any driver at any time, with no need for suspicion of drink driving, an accident, or a moving traffic offence. I do not call this ‘random’ breath testing because I do not believe that it would be sensible for the police to use these powers other than on an intelligence-led basis or as part of a campaign. So, they might target venues or times of year where or when drink driving is more likely, and they might use checkpoints at which all drivers stopped are breathalysed.

The police can currently stop any vehicle and can breath test drivers upon suspicion of drink driving. I think that it is important, nevertheless, that the police can tell drivers that they can be stopped and breathalysed at any time, as this will provide a disincentive to those drivers who currently decide it is worth taking the chance of drinking and driving.

How can you justify car seizure? What about other members of the family who need the car?

The Government estimates that more than 10% of drink drivers are reoffenders. More needs to be done remove the capacity for repeat offenders to drink and drive and seizure of vehicles can help achieve this. But each case of a repeat offender will need to be considered closely by the court and that consideration will need to include ownership and its use by others.

How can you justify permanent disqualification from driving?

The Government estimates that more than 10% of drink drivers are reoffenders. The current regime in respect of high risk offenders rightly has its initial focus on rehabilitation; that is, when a driver has served their sentence and appears not to be a chronic alcoholic they are allowed to resume driving.

However, driving is a privilege not a right. It carries with it considerable responsibility. In my view, there therefore comes a point in the cycle of reoffending when it is simply not appropriate to relicense an offender and when public safety is better served by removing their right to drive for good. I think it is entirely proper that the courts should consider the possibility of removing a driver’s licence for good, in the case of repeat offences.

Drug Driving

Key Messages

Questions & Answers

Will I be prosecuted for driving after I’ve taken the medicine prescribed by my doctor?

It is currently an offence to drive while unfit due to any drug – including a prescribed medicine. I do not propose any change to that offence, as it is important for road safety and rightly places responsibility on the patient and the doctor.

However, for the new offence of driving with a drug above the prescribed limit, I am recommending a statutory defence that the drug had been taken in accordance with a doctor’s prescription.

Why the focus on these controlled drugs?

Because these appear to be the major part of the drug driving problem. Other types of medicine are not included on our list of drugs to which new screening technology and a new offence should apply, because there is no evidence that these present such a problem in terms of involvement in accidents. However, it would be for Government to monitor the emerging data on drug use and driving and to revise accordingly the list of drugs which were screened for and part of the new offence.

Why is mephedrone not on the list?

The list is not intended to be exhaustive and if, when the new screening devices and the new offence are introduced, it is clear that mephedrone is prevalent and having an impact on drivers, then there is no reason why it should not be included.

Why not just ban drug driving? Why not a zero tolerance approach?

It is not against the law to take controlled drugs, though it is an offence to possess and supply them. I am wary of making road traffic law an adjunct to the law on the misuse of drugs.

Instead I think that the focus should be on public safety, so we should be concerned with impaired driving. The new offence should therefore focus on establishing levels of drugs in the blood at which significant impairment – and therefore risk to public safety - can be reasonably assumed, as it is for the excess alcohol offence.

I have recommended, however, that if it is not possible to agree on impairment levels for the most prevalent, dangerous drugs, then Government should consider a ‘zero tolerance’ offence.

Why are you not recommending roadside ‘drugalysers’?

The evidence suggests that the technology is not yet ready for screening tests of oral fluid at the roadside. There is some of this type of testing going on abroad – some Australian states even use it evidentially, with Western Australia using it for cannabis, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

However, there are issues of environmental interference and sensitivity to temperature which have to be overcome. The Australians are dealing with these by using ‘drug buses’ and cool boxes to keep the testing devices and test environment at the right temperature.

It is also notable that few, if any, nations have the penalties that Great Britain does for drug driving, so it is very important that we get the evidence right.

Why has it taken so long to produce a drugalyser?

There are undoubtedly difficulties to be overcome in producing a device suitable for use at the roadside, given problems of environmental interference and temperature control. It is also the case that the stiffer penalties in Great Britain mean that we have to be more certain of guilt.

The recent change of tack by Government to focus on production of a device for use in police stations is welcome and this should be capable of introduction within two years. It might be that the technology then develops sufficiently to allow evidential testing by oral swab, oral screening by swab at the roadside and ultimately evidential portable testing by oral swab.

Why not have a specific offence of driving whilst impaired by drink and drugs?

The current offence under s.4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 of driving whilst impaired by drink or drugs is adequate for instances, which we believe are not uncommon, of driving having taken an impairing combination of drink and drugs. However, some of the recommendations we have made will help bring more cases to justices and help to understand the prevalence of the combination of drink and drugs:

We also recommend that the Sentencing Guidelines should be revised to make the combination of alcohol and drugs an aggravating factor in all drug driving and drink driving cases, so incurring a stiffer penalty.

Who is Sir Peter North?

Sir Peter North, CBE, QC, studied law at Oxford University and then spent 15 years teaching law mainly in Oxford. In 1976 he took up office as one of the 5 Law Commissioners in England, the Law Commission being responsible for making a wide range of proposals for law reform. His particular areas of activity were private international law, contract, tort, and a range of negotiations within the EEC on behalf of the United Kingdom Government. He then returned to the academic world, and from 1984 to 2005, he was the Principal of Jesus College, Oxford and for 4 years (the then maximum permitted period) in the mid-nineties he was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. At the same time, he provided advice to the United Kingdom Government on a range of topics, most notably chairing enquiries into the whole area of road traffic law and its policing, and the difficult problems of parades and marches in Northern Ireland. In addition he chaired a major Commission of Inquiry into the whole working of Oxford University. He was also Chairman of a UK regulatory body in the telecommunications industry.

His current responsibilities include Chairman of the UK Government’s Standing Advisory Committee on Private International Law, and membership of the Senior Salaries Review Body.

He is the author of 15 books or editions (primarily in the field of private international law), a Fellow of the British Academy, Member of the Institute of International Law, an honorary Queen’s Counsel, appointed CBE in 1989 and received a knighthood in 1998.

When is the Review happening?

The review started in December 2009. Sir Peter will provide Ministers with initial advice by 31 March 2010.

How can I get involved?

In addition to meeting key interest groups, Sir Peter is interested in receiving views in writing. You can read more about how to make representations to the Review here on the Consultation web page.