Police launch breath-test crackdown

Automatic checks for all drivers
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The Independent Online
The police are preparing a tough new clampdown on drink-driving because a hard core of drivers is continuing to get behind the wheel while over the limit.

Under new police proposals every motorist involved in a road accident, however minor, will have to undergo a compulsory breath test. The move is expected to be given the go-ahead today at the Chief Constables' Council, the main ratifying body of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Under the proposals any driver involved in a road accident at which a police officer attends or is asked to investigate will be breathalysed. Since 1992 all drivers in Britain are automatically breathalysed after accidents in which someone is injured. However, when no one is hurt it is up to the police officer's discretion whether drivers should be tested.

Police chiefs are concerned that the anti drink-driving campaign has stalled. In 1994, 678,500 people took breath tests in England and Wales - 13 per cent more than the previous year. There were 93,300 people who tested positive or refused tests - up by about 4,000 on 1993.

Research suggests that middle-aged men are particularly resistant to anti drink- drive campaigns. A study in 1994 also found that 93 per cent of motorists convicted of drinking and driving had at least two offences, suggesting that the problem is confined to a small group of people.

The percentage of people found positive when tested has dramatically declined since 1984, when 42 per cent were found over the limit, but in recent years the decline has slowed. In 1990, it was 17 per cent, this dropped 1 per cent in 1991, rose to 17 per cent in 1992, dropped to 15 per cent the following year and reached 14 per cent in 1994.

David Williams, Chief Constable of Surrey and chairman of Acpo's Traffic Committee, is expected to say in a report at today's meeting: "There's concern that the downward trend in drink-driving has reached a plateau and there's a need to get the hard core who are ignoring the message."

One way of doing this, Mr Williams is expected to suggest, is to ensure that every driver involved in a road accident will be breath-tested whether or not alcohol is suspected. At present a police officer can force a person to take a breath-test if there is reasonable cause to suspect that the person has been driving or attempting to drive with alcohol in their body, that he or she has committed a driving offence, or that they have been involved in an accident.

Some forces already test for alcohol after almost every accident, but others only use a breathalyser when someone has been hurt. Several forces are known to be unhappy about having compulsory tests because of the extra costs.

Helen Peggs, of Victim Support, said yesterday that the group had long campaigned for compulsory testing in cases involving death or injury. "There's a strong feeling among bereaved families that many causes of road accidents are not adequately dealt with in court. Additional testing would also deter drink-driving," she said.

In a separate development, the police are also considering lowering the standard used to match fingerprints found at a crime scene with those of a suspect. A report for police chiefs has concluded that the present system, in which there must be 16 identical features between the prints, is arbitrary and allows many criminals to escape prosecution.

Instead they will be asked to consider replacing it with a similar system to the one used in Australia, in which the prosecution relies upon a qualified expert to determine whether two sets of prints match. This may be based on less than 16 identical features. Experts compare the unique joins and ridges of a person's finger print.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The 16-point system is widely used. However, the police are entitled to change their working practice."

Duncan Lustig-Prean, deputy director of Liberty, the civil rights group, yesterday expressed grave concern about any change in which the standard of proof might be lowered.

He said: "If the scientific standards are lowered and the opinion of a so called expert is relied more upon this could lead to mistakes. The present 16-point system is considered fool-proof, if the quality of this is lowered the defence must be given a chance to challenge expert evidence."