Outcry at rejection of lower drink-drive limit

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Safety campaigners reacted angrily yesterday to the Government's decision not to lower the drink-driving limit.

David Jamieson, a Transport minister, said the limit would remain unchanged at 80mg of alcohol to 100ml of blood. Road safety groups had wanted the threshold reduced to 50mg/ 100ml – the equivalent of two small glasses of wine.

"We feel badly let down by this," said Jane Everson, the secretary of the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving. Her son Gareth was 19 when he was killed by a teenage drink-driver in May 1998.

Ms Everson said: "Other European countries have lower limits. I can't understand why the British Government does not fall into line. It is estimated that a lower limit would prevent 50 deaths and 250 injuries a year."

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said not lowering the limit was "a missed opportunity". Its spokesman, Roger Vincent, said: "We think the lower limit is a good idea. Annual drink-drive deaths rose slightly in 2000 and we fear that the anti drink-drive message is not getting through to young people. We would like to see novice drivers being given a lower limit – even as low as 20mg."

Before government campaigns began in the mid 1970s there were as many as 2,000 road deaths a year from drink-driving offences. The campaigns lowered the figure to 1,640 in 1979 and 460 in 1999. The provisional figure for the year 2000 showed a rise to 520. Figures for 1999 showed 180 of the 460 drink-drive deaths were among people aged 20 to 29, with only 70 involving drivers aged 40 or more.

The police have long campaigned for a lowering of the limit, although the Association of Chief Police Officers declined to comment yesterday.

The RAC's campaigning arm, the RAC Foundation, said the limit should remain the same. "There is no evidence that lower limits lead to fewer accidents and we think drivers understand, and respect, the current 80mg limit," said the foundation's executive director, Edmund King. "European countries with 50mg limits also have graduated penalties while we automatically ban drivers who are over our 80mg limit.

"The majority of drivers killed in drink-driving incidents are more than twice over the UK limit. Let's enforce the current limit and target hard-core drink-driving offenders."

An unpublished study funded by the Government has found that drinking one glass of wine impairs a driver's ability more than smoking a single joint.

The draft findings by the Transport Research Laboratory showed that people given enough alcohol to put them on the 50mg limit took more risks and drove faster than those who had smoked a joint. But cannabis smokers suffered short-term concentration problems when asked to hold a constant speed in a driving simulator and to follow a figure-of-eight loop system.

People who drank and smoked a joint also became more careful than those who were drunk, the research found, because they were more aware of their state despite still driving worse than those who had only one drug.

"Whereas alcohol promotes risk-taking ... cannabis promotes conservative driving," Nicholas Ward, technical adviser to a European trial evaluating the effects of drugs on driving, told New Scientist. "But it may cause attention problems and misperceptions of time."