Ministers move to cut alcohol limit and deter drink-drivers

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Drinking and driving claims the lives of more than 500 people every year. Randeep Ramesh and Jeremy Riggall examine the measures ministers are considering to cut the death toll on Britain's roads.

The Government is to launch a consultation paper at the end of this month which will propose a lower drink-driving limit and set out radical measures to deter motorists from drinking and driving.

Ministers favour a blood alcohol limit of 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 per millilitres of blood - down from the present 80mg limit. It will be the first reduction in 30 years. The year-long driving ban is likely to stay.

Any reduction is unlikely to produce a backlash. A recent poll by ICM showed 85 per cent of the public backed a lowering of the limit.

Although Britain is recognised as having an effective road safety policy, officials say the number of deaths caused by drink-driving has remained static at 540 a year for four years.

In order to cut further the death toll, ministers are minded to consider tougher penalties for high-risk or repeat offenders. These measures may see persistent offenders losing their licences for life or extend the mandatory 12-month driving ban. Another option could see motorists who ignore the drink-driving limit forfeiting their car.

Young drivers may also face tougher drink drive limits. Officials point out although "early" drivers only make up 10 per cent of the driving population, they cause 20 per cent of accidents. In some US states, the number of fatalities caused by young drivers dropped by 50 per cent after introducing "super-low" limits for teenagers.

Ministers, however, have been advised that a limit of 20mg for motorists with less than three years' driving experience may not significantly cut accident rates. Civil servants say creating a two-tier system may just result in young drivers drinking more after they pass a certain date.

Motoring organisations are not in favour of tougher drink drive limits. "We think more police enforcement of the current limits would significantly bring down levels," said a spokesman for the AA.

But evidence suggests otherwise. Experts say that having 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood makes a driver twice as likely to have an accident as a motorist with a zero reading. Researchers at the University of Leeds have shown that despite being under the current limit, motorists' driving can be affected. "There are small but consistent detriments to driving even under 80mg," said Andrew Parks, principal research fellow.

Richard Allsop, professor of transport studies at University College, London, estimates that 100 lives a year could be saved if the 50mg limit was adopted. Random breath testing by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions showed 2.3 per cent of drivers could be driving with alcohol levels between 40mg and 80mg.

A lower limit will bring Britain in line with the rest of Europe. France, Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands all have a 50mg limit.

Sweden has the lowest drink-driving laws, set at 20mg in 1990. "From January to the end of October we carried out 12,000 alcohol tests and found only 90 to be above 20mg, which works out at 0.75 per cent," said inspector Glenn Andersson of Stockholm police.

With twice as many road deaths as Britain, France lowered its limit to 50mg in 1995 and introduced campaigns to inform people how much they could drink. Disposable breathalysers were put on sale in service stations, supermarkets and chemists. Initial reports claim this has saved lives.

Paul Dumontet, spokesman for the transport department in France, says that having a glass or two with a meal is de rigueur for the French. "We have to be realistic. The French like to drink wine at lunch time. We are simply trying what the safe driving alcohol level is."

British ministers believe the problem with countries such as Belgium and France is not the limit, but the very light penalties.

At Westminster, ministers are keen to promote a package of measures. Reducing the alcohol limit has to go hand in hand with enforcement to get results. When politicians in the Capital Territory of Australia reduced the limit from 80mg to 50mg they also introduced random breath testing, and there was a 41 per cent reduction in offenders who were three times over the limit.

"We aim to cut the number of deaths on Britain's roads significantly," said Baroness Hayman last week. "But we will do so with a balanced package. There are many weapons in the armoury. But it will be through education first, then compliance, enforcement and finally legislation that we bring about change."

cost of exceeding the limit

Country Limit Minimum Penalty Road deaths per 10,000

motor vehicles

Sweden 20mg* 3 months disqualification 1.3

Victoria (Australia) 50mg* 6 months disqualification 1.45

Netherlands 50mg 6 months disqualification 1.8

Maryland (US) 70mg 60 days disqualification 1.83

Great Britain 80mg 12 months disqualification 1.5

France 80mg** 900FF fine and endorsement 3.0

*Enforcement by random breath testing.

** France has recently reduced the limit to 50mg

Source: The Portman Group July 1997