Drivers: prepare for your driest summer yet

Years of drink-drive education have made most of us aware of our limits. But can we really trust ourselves to know when to stop, or should the law be tougher still?
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A new leaflet is arriving among the paperwork that holiday companies send out with the plane tickets - the maps, the places-to-visit booklet and the reminders not to forget your passport. It points out that drivers need to be extra careful about drinking alcohol. For the drink-drive limit in France is now significantly lower than in Britain. An extra glass of beer on the sun-baked deck of the cross-channel ferry could cost you dear.

For years Britons have been bombarded with road safety campaigns about just what we can get away with before the crystals in the roadside breathalyser turn a culpable orange. Our drinking intuitions are now finely tuned. But they will not help when we venture on to the European mainland. In Britain the limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood - three or four glasses of wine for a man and half that for a woman. But in France it has now been reduced to 50mg, which means a man of medium build will do well to manage a couple of glasses. The same limit has been introduced by Holland, Belgium, Finland and Greece; Portugal and Sweden enforce even lower limits of 40mg and 20mg respectively: the Swedish limit means that drivers cannot risk drinking at all.

The latest scientific reports seemed destined to push Britain in the same direction - and possibly, some police chiefs hope, to zero. The drinks industry is not happy. A battle royal looks to be in the offing.

On the face it of it the issue is simple. Deaths from drink-drive related accidents have fallen from more than 1,500 a year in the early 1980s to around 500 a year today. But some of the 10 people who die each week in such accidents might be saved if the limit was lower. So says the British Medical Association, which insists that any amount of alcohol impairs driving ability, decision-making and reaction speed. So say chief constables in Scotland (their colleagues in England and Wales are to debate the issue next month and look likely to go the same way). Most recently the Labour Party has signalled its willingness to review the existing limit.

So that's it. Well, not quite. The Roads Minister, Steven Norris, is not yet convinced. He points out, in common with the drinks industry's alcohol misuse think-tank, the Portman Group, that the dramatic fall over the past decade has been achieved while the limit was unchanged at 80mg.

Dropping the level, says the minister, might sour the public's attitude to restrictions on drink-driving. Broad general acceptance of a restriction that is perceived as reasonable could turn into a tendency to flout a law which was seen as unreasonable. And it would probably do little to reduce accidents, most of which are caused by drinkers who are well over the existing limit - one third of drunk drivers are over 200mg. "I'm therefore very wary of making this type of change if I think there's a risk that we'll alienate public support," Mr Norris said recently.

So how has the sea-change in public opinion - and behaviour - come about? And would reducing the amount we are allowed to drink automatically produce a further reduction in accidents?

These are questions on which the experts do not completely agree. There is consensus that drivers make a moral choice when they get into a car after consuming alcohol. But what is it that prompts a driver to refrain from putting key into ignition after drink has been taken? Behavioural psychologists say we are affected by a complex interaction of three factors - the likelihood of getting caught, the severity of the penalties exacted on the guilty and the social changes which a decade of anti-drink/drive advertising has brought about.

"It is not just a question of providing more information," says Dr Gellise Bagnall, an expert on alcohol education at the University of Edinburgh. Nor is it a question of creating a direct correlation between harsher penalties and a reduction in offences. "In Chicago, severely increasing the penalties overnight reduced the number of people brought before judges, possibly because police officers were more reluctant to bring in people who were just over the limit," says Dr Andrew Guppy, reader in applied psychology at John Moores University, who has made a number of studies of drink-driving.

But the key change has been the education campaigns that have added a moral dimension to the issue. "The amount of attention placed on this compared, say, to speeding," says Dr Guppy, "means that in effect as a society we have decided to scapegoat the drink-driver." It is our sub- conscious awareness of this which gives a certain ambivalence still to our attitudes to drink-driving. Hence the unease expressed recently when Hampshire Police launched its "shop a drink driver" free phone service, which invited the public to ring in anonymously to inform on those they suspect of being persistent and regular drink drivers.

Many harbour no such equivalence. In Australia the introduction of both a 50mg limit and random testing had a dramatic effect, argues Dr Fleur Fisher, the ethics specialist at the BMA. As well as deterring moderate drinkers it has cut by more than 40 per cent the number of hard-core offenders driving with very high concentrations of alcohol in their blood.

The Scottish police are already persuaded. "A driver's ability is impaired even with one drink," Ian McKinnon, assistant chief constable of Strathclyde Police said on Radio 4's PM programme recently, speaking on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers of Scotland (ACPOS). "The 50mg option is a stepping stone; if we can get the limit down to 20, which I have no doubt will be the ACPOS policy in the future, then the message will be clear - that you cannot even have one drink."

The research that convinced the Scottish constabulary was conducted by a team in the Behavioural Sciences department at Glasgow Medical School. Using sensitive computer programmes they have determined that a driver's ability is impaired at much lower levels than had previously been thought.

"Some people will be significantly impaired at current legal levels," says one of the research team, Dr Richard Hammersley. "At half the legal limit you will probably be 5 per cent slower in your reactions. Most of the time that would not matter but there are times when it could. You can drive a well-known route quite safely, but if a child runs out then 5 per cent might be the difference between a near miss and a fatal accident."

As individuals it might be rational for people to say "I'll take that 5 per cent risk", he argues, but as a society if we can cut the number of accidents by 5 per cent perhaps our attitude should be different. That could be done by lowering the limit to 50mg, he suggests, then drivers would not be tempted to take the risk that they will still be safe to drive after just one more.

"I think that people would welcome a change in the law to take them out of that guessing game," he says. "That's not patronising; it's helping people by creating circumstances which prompt them to what they really know is sensible behaviour."

The proposal, he suspects, will meet an lot of opposition. "The people who don't really want that are the drinks industry, which is an important lobby," he says. Dr John Browne, of the Portman Group, insists not: "If it worked, we would support it. But the dramatic fall in deaths - to the lowest levels in the civilised world - has happened with 80mg in place. What worked overseas may not work here, where we have already taken out the easy targets." He supports reinforcing existing campaigns.

In truth those who are likely to object more are those who complain about the "nanny state" and its propensity to take responsibility out of the hands of individuals. The key question is: are individuals really able to decide for themselves? Or does drink take away our ability to do this and force us to rely on the judgement of the state? On this, expert opinion is divided.

"People are extremely bad at knowing how intoxicated they are," says Dr Geoffrey Lowe, of the University of Hull, who researches into alcohol and behaviour. "You actually feel drunkest when the biggest change occurs in blood alcohol levels - that is from being sober to being a little drunk." But going from a bit drunk to quite drunk to very drunk is harder for the drinker to gauge. "You can feel the effects of the first drink or two much more than the fifth or sixth," he says, which explains the I- felt-all-right-until-I got-out-into-the fresh-air syndrome.

"Drinking is quite a skilled activity," says Dr Lowe. "With experience you learn that the more you drink the less you become aware of certain consequences - and then you build that into your strategy. The skilled drinker takes account of whether he's drinking on an empty stomach, whether he's tired, whether beer or spirits affect him more. In a sense he is his own breathalyser - if he chose to listen. But the more you drink the more your perception of risk changes; any decision involves cost and benefit and after you've had a few you tend to play down costs and play up benefits."

This is why drinkers decide to abandon the car and take a taxi after a few drinks, but then decide after several more that they actually feel all right now to drive home. The internal breathalyser stops working after a while, but it is effective enough in the first stages. Dr Guppy agrees. "Most people under-estimate how much they can drink before they are over the limit," he says. "But at 50-60mg people feel subjectively impaired." They just have to listen.

Dr Hammersley is unimpressed by all this. His research - getting individuals to perform computer tracking tests, a sophisticated assessment of co-ordination skills - shows that "how drunk you feel is in any case not related to how well you perform tracking tasks".

But though researchers disagree about the desirability of an eventual zero limit, they have achieved a broad consensus on the question of a drop from 80mg to 50mg. "I would back 50 - to be on the safe side," says Geoffrey Lowe. "There is a case for harmonisation with Europe, so people crossing borders do not have to redo their mental calculations," says Gellise Bagnall. "Fifty would be a happy medium," says Andrew Guppy, "politics is about striking a balance". "I'd be happy with 50," says Richard Hammersley, "unless the research changes". Enjoy that third glass, while you can.

ONE TOO MANY FOR THE ROAD: WHICH TYPE ARE YOU?

THE ABSOLUTIST

'Me? I never drink and drive. Never touch a drop if I know I'm going to be behind a wheel. It's just a question of self-control really. Those who are too weak to master their urges are, in my view, a bit pathetic really.'

There are a number of drivers who never drink out of conviction (and not the criminal kind). For a start there is the 10 per cent of the population who are teetotallers, along with another 10-15 per cent who drink only at Christmas or on special occasions. Then there are those, like taxi drivers and driving instructors, who have too much to lose. Next, say psychologists, are those who are more aware of alcohol's effects on them - who know that once they start to drink they become more malleable so they avoid temptation. Then there are the drivers who lack confidence in their own driving ability and want to take no extra risks. Finally there are those with fierce commitment: members of Mothers Against Drunken Drivers with the terrible motivation of a dead or injured child, or those with the ideological certainty of puritans who see everything in black and white.

THE CALCULATOR

'I'm not over the limit. I'm sure I'm not ... I just had a couple of glasses. Well, two and a half if you count the spritzer. Maybe I should have a had a bit more to eat, a bit of the bread roll to soak it up. But I think I'm all right. I'm sure I am.'

Most drivers take some risk. Balancing risk and benefit is one of the basic processes of living. Most people underestimate how many drinks they can have and stay under the limit, psychologists say. But they do have an instinctive notion of when their driving ability begins to be impaired. This internal breathalyser is governed by many variables - our weight, diet, whether we are tired or drinking on an empty stomach. The Calculator tries to balance out these risks. The driving Calculator also takes into account other variables - familiarity with the car and the route, the state of the weather, whether a journey calls for the sustained concentration of motorway driving as against a 15-minute dash home on the back roads.

THE MUTINEER

'I can hold my drink, me. And anyway, let's not be doing with false modesty, I'm a bit of an ace driver. Sometimes I think I drive even better when I've had a few. It's different for bad drivers, but I can hold me drink, me. I haven't told you that already, have I?'

Some Mutineers know they are drunk and take a calculated risk - "I need the car at home for a long journey tomorrow so I will have to risk it tonight". (The trouble is our ability to balance possible risk against probable benefit diminishes with alcohol.) But most Repeat Mutineers are people with drink problems. Young Mutineers are outnumbered three to one by the middle-aged. Some of these are out-and-out alcoholics; others drink-drive as part of a wider pattern of misusing alcohol. The Hardened Mutineer probably won't be affected by any change in the law. Treatment at an alcohol abuse centre is probably the only answer.

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