Drivers count the cost of a drink: Failing a breath test can lead to an enormous rise in premiums, as one driver found out

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As Christmas approaches, so does the campaign against drinking and driving. For me, this is an unpleasant reminder of a miserable night two years ago when I was stopped on a busy road in North London. I knew before I was breathalysed that I was over the limit.

I was banned for a year and fined pounds 350. But on top of that, I knew there was no escape from painfully high car insurance when I got my licence back. Anyone with their own insurance, including the self-employed like me, cannot avoid this part of the punishment. Most insurance companies take a very dim view of offenders. I drive a 10-year-old Ford Fiesta for which I had previously paid pounds 196 for comprehensive cover, driver only. My broker warned me that my insurer took a very moralistic line and, sure enough, refused to give me comprehensive cover, quoting pounds 750 for third party, fire and theft.

The official line of most insurers is that drink/drive offenders are a bad risk who have shown themselves to be socially irresponsible. Tony Baker, manager of public affairs at the Association of British Insurers, agreed with this and said: 'Anyone who gets caught deserves all that they get and the insurance business does take a very tough line on them.' Like several others in the business, he had no statistics on re-offending to back up his views. Mr Baker warned that premiums may be more than 200 per cent higher after a conviction. This is, in many cases, an underestimation.

Guardian Royal Exchange will not consider a new client with a drink/drive conviction but will quote for existing clients, although not for comprehensive cover. 'We're just not interested in that category of driver,' a spokesman said. 'We're not being judgemental, we're just following the line the Government takes.'

Commercial Union only quotes for third party, fire and theft to existing customers, although a spokesman said that 'each individual case is taken on merit'.

But there are a number of insurance companies that specialise in what they call 'non-standard features', such as drink/drive offenders, people with other convictions, high-rise occupation for house insurance and so on.

Ten years ago, for example, the insurer Sabre was set up 'with the raison d'etre to take on higher risks,' according to the managing director, Alan Woodcock. He is against drinking and driving but believes people have a right to be insured. He believes drink/drivers fall into two categories: the 'repeaters' who are socially irresponsible or verging on alcoholism and who Sabre eventually refuses to insure; and the overwhelming number of people convicted who never re-offend.

St Paul's is another high-risk specialist. 'I don't believe we should take the moral high ground,' said Beverley Shreeve, deputy general manager. 'At times like this, people don't need someone to moralise, they need help and advice.' She stressed the usefulness of a broker.

The specialist companies are certainly a cheaper option and there are several to choose from. Against the pounds 750 quote from GRE, my previous insurer, I was quoted pounds 300 by Sabre, which I accepted.

If a drink/driver does not re-offend within five years, the conviction is removed from their record. In theory, insurance companies should not ask about offences more than five years in the past.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

(Photograph and Table omitted)

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