One-pint limit will force closing time on country publicans

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An automatic one-year ban for motorists drinking just one pint looks set to be introduced by the Government. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, examines new proposals to reduce road deaths.

Newly qualified motorists and teenage drivers could have a special "alcohol-free" or extra low limit for a probationary period, it emerged yesterday.

Police are also expected to be given new powers to act on public tip- offs and lay traps for motorists leaving pub car parks.

The possible changes could form part of a package of measures aimed at cutting the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by drunk drivers.

While the Government intends to consult on the changes during the next three months, it became clear yesterday that Gavin Strang, transport minister, favours lowering the current limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (about two pints of beer) to 50 mg - the equivalent of about one pint, one unit of spirits or two glasses of wine. Breaching the lower limit would also be punishable with a minimum 12 month ban. It is estimated that lowering the limit could save about 50 lives a year - about a tenth of the current drink-related death toll.

An alternative is to give drivers caught at the higher 80mg a longer ban, but this looks unlikely. Instead more motorists who repeatedly offend or who have been drinking excessively - about half the people convicted are over twice the limit - would have stiffer penalties with a maximum of six months in jail.

The consultative document, "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps", says that if a motorist has drunk between 50mg and 80mg, which is currently legal, they are up to 2.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident than if they were sober.

There were about 3,600 road deaths in Britain compared to around 850 homicides, says the document.

The gradual drop in road accidents appears to have levelled out with a hard core of young and middle aged men continuing to drink and drive.

While the police and doctors are in favour of reducing the limit to match France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Finland, landlords in rural pubs are concerned that it could destroy their businesses.

Neil Hammans, landlord of The Fox, a 16th century hostelry in the village of Denchworth, Oxfordshire, said: "It's bound to hit country pubs as people will not want to travel miles for just one pint."

His view was supported by Mike Ripley, of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, who said: "Lowering the limit would be a disaster for country pubs, shops and social life in country areas." Mr Strang replied: "I do not think 50mg is a draconian measure which will shut down rural pubs. You can still have a couple of shandies and a few soft drinks."

The drinks industry funded watchdog, the Portman Group, yesterday cast doubt on the effectiveness of a lower limit, saying: "The stubborn criminals who cause most of the drink-drive deaths are already well over the present limit. They will not be stopped by a lower limit."