Ministers declare war on drunk drivers

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Persistent drink-drivers could face heavier fines and longer prison sentences under proposals to be published by the Government today. The measures, designed to cut road deaths, will be accompanied by a new one- pint limit for drivers. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, looks at the detail.

Random breath tests and an increase in the current maximum six-month prison sentence or pounds 5,000 fine will be among the options laid out in a consultation paper today.

The measures are aimed at preventing some of the 500 deaths caused by drunken drivers every year in Britain.

In addition to plans to cut the limit from 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrams - the equivalent of about one pint for the average person - they also hope to persuade heavier drinkers not to drive.

While some research has suggested that the 540 road deaths related to alcohol last year were mainly caused by people well over the limit, police believe that cutting the minimum could help.

Last night, officials stressed that the document would be "consultative," and would set out a range of options.

However the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, confirmed yesterday that the Government was considering a two-tier system of penalties with lesser punishments for people caught with between 50 and 80 milligrams of alcohol in their blood.

Although Britain did well in comparison with other countries, ministers were hoping to find ways of cutting the death toll further, he said in a BBC interview.

"These proposals ... are looking at the principle of a two-tier system where it could be in one case the one pint you are talking about, toughening up those kind of regulations, but allowing for some sensitivities in the court to allow discretion," he said.

Mr Prescott hinted that he favoured a one-pint limit, saying he had always backed tougher regulations on drink-driving.

"I believe and evidence tends to show in other countries that if you are tougher you can reduce these deaths. I think that's a worthwhile objective and I think the public would agree with us. But we are putting out a consultation document so people can give us their views," he said.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, the British Medical Association and safety groups have all backed a lowering of the limit. Other European countries including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Finland all have a 50mg limit while Portugal has 40mg and Sweden 20mg.

However drivers' organisations and a sensible drinking group funded by the drinks industry have suggested that a lower limit is not the way forward.

Jean Coussins, director of the Portman Group, said research showed wider police powers and more rigorous enforcement of the regulations was the best way forward.

"What we do know absolutely for sure is the vast majority of the deaths in this country are caused by people already two or three times and more over the limit," she said.