Leading Article: A realistic approach to drink-driving

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IF ANYONE were in doubt about the power of television, then the news that the number of drivers failing a breath test after an accident over the holidays has fallen by about one-fifth would be a convincing testament to the potential of "hard-hitting" publicity. The commercials shown at Christmas featuring reconstructions of horrifying drink-related accidents clearly played their part in, to adapt an earlier campaign's slogan, getting death off the roads. This success has focused attention once again on whether the time has now come to reduce the drink-driving limit. The evidence, however, suggests that such a move would have little effect.

When Barbara Castle introduced the breathalyser and the present drink- driving limit in 1967, the number of drink-drive convictions doubled over the next five years. Since the Seventies, however, the numbers of positive breath test convictions, and drink-related injuries and fatalities, have all steadily fallen. This trend has been going on, it is important to stress, with precisely the same alcohol limit throughout. What do seem to have been effective are anti-drink-driving publicity and the resulting revolution in public attitudes.

This leaves the "hard core" of drivers who behave irresponsibly. Reducing the present permitted level of alcohol even to nil will not have much impact on them. We have a lower rate of road fatalities than the French, whose limit is a lot lower. Granting the police more arbitrary powers to stop drivers at random might catch a few, but this has some unattractive implications for civil liberties. Rural areas would suffer needlessly. Besides, if the traffic cops are determined enough to stop you, they will.

It may be an uncomfortable thought, but the "hard core" may always be with us.