The legal blood alcohol limit for young drivers should be reduced to zero to cut road accidents, the Government's chief medical officer has advised.

Sir Liam Donaldson said a no-alcohol rule for drivers aged 17 to 20 was necessary because young people were more affected by small amounts of alcohol than older people but were less conscious of the risks.

Young people are more likely to die in road accidents than from any other cause. Sir Liam, in his annual report on the state of the nation's health, said there were more than 1,000 drink-drive accidents involving drivers aged 17 to 19 in 2005.

"Accidents and violence are the commonest cause of death in the age group," he said. "Inexperienced drivers have a higher rate of being involved in accidents, and the rate of crashes for young drivers who have been drinking is 2.5 times higher than for older drink drivers. Recent surveys have found younger drivers are more likely to think it is acceptable to drive after drinking two pints, in contrast to older drivers."

Sir Liam said he was focusing on teenage health in his report because of the high risks young people were exposed to. He called for a national summit to examine the issue, with involvement of young people.

"Risk-taking is a rite of passage to adult life," he added. "The problem is it can be life-threatening in the short term and lead to long-term unhealthy behaviour."

The key risks were accidents and violence, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, risky sex, smoking, binge-drinking and drug-taking. He published 10 tips to a healthy lifestyle for teenagers.

On drink-driving, the report said the legal blood alcohol limit in the UK is 0.8 grams per litre for all ages; in many other European countries the limit is 0.5g.

Many countries have a lower limit for young drivers. In Ontario, Canada, the legal limit for novice drivers was reduced to zero in 1995 which led to a 19 per cent fall in the number of crashes involving drivers aged 16 to 19. In Europe, 14 countries have a zero or close to zero limit for novice or young drivers. The same applies in some states in Australia, New Zealand and in Florida, US.

Sir Liam said for technical reasons the legal limit might be set just above zero, to exclude people using an alcohol-based mouthwash, for example. But the effective limit should be zero.

Opposition politicians expressed scepticism. Norman Baker, the transport spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "There is a real argument to lower the drink-driving limit for all motorists to 0.5g per litre, in line with many European countries. But a zero limit [for the young] risks criminalising those whose driving is not impaired.

"Young drivers could face legal problems because they had a couple of drinks the night before or used alcohol in cooking. The answer is a lower limit for all drivers."

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