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Older drivers 'take the most chances': Country publicans have to steer a fine line to attract trade. Martin Whitfield reports

PETER, standing at the lounge bar of the White Hart in Cross, Somerset, is honest about his drinking and driving.

'I have four or five pints every day, seven days a week. I have been driving for 46 years and have never had a scratch, never had an insurance claim, nothing.

'One of those young kids could . . . have a pint of rough cider and could not get in the car. Yet he would pass the breathalyser and I would fail,' he said.

Peter, 70, has a two-mile drive home from the White Hart along country lanes where a policeman would be a rare sight late at night. Like many older drivers, he takes a calculated risk that he will not get caught.

The full car park of the White Hart at 11pm on a weekday testifies to the fact that the population of Cross, approximately 300, cannot support its two pubs. Down the road, every space of the car park at the New Inn is also taken. 'Most of our customers have to drive here,' Terry Barber, 56, landlord of the White Hart, said. 'They come from the villages round and about.'

Country publicans, aware of the fine line they have to steer between being able to attract enough trade to stay in business, but not encouraging customers to take risks on the road, have taken to hiring minibuses for Christmas and New Year's Eve.

Monty Coles, the landlord of the New Inn, a free house, likes to believe that drinkers, particularly younger drinkers, have changed their attitudes. The pub's telephone has the numbers of three taxi firms set into its memory.

'My generation are the worst for taking their chances,' 47-year-old Mr Coles said. 'The younger ones will leave their cars behind and go home or on to clubs in taxis. Our car park is often still full at 9am on Saturday and Sunday mornings.'

Both the village pubs attract custom by organising team games - football, darts, pool and skittles. Such games allow players to take turns to drive the remainder of the team, the driver being restricted to soft drinks for the evening. Couples often operate the same system. 'My husband and I take it in turns . . . and I only have one glass of wine or nothing at all if I'm driving,' Sue Watkins, 40, of Axbridge, a lunchtime customer in the White Hart, said.

Lee Constable, 19, and friends Matt Love, 23, and Liz Edwards, 18, said they were often shocked by how much older people drink and drive, especially in country pubs. Mr Constable said: 'I never drink more than two pints and drive. If it is decided that somebody is going to drive, then it is taken for granted that they are not going to drink.'

Young men are no longer treated as a bit of a 'cissy' if they do not knock back pints at the bar. Most pubs also serve non-alcoholic lagers, beers and ciders.

Superintendent Paul Howell, head of the road traffic department of Avon and Somerset Police, says he is now more concerned about summer drinking and driving than that around Christmas. Last year, the force recorded 85 positive results out of 514 breath tests from 19 December to 1 January.

'Most people in cars at Christmas will have been out drinking and celebrating. But the driver has not been drinking. The message has begun to get through. Our highest risk is in the summer months. People are travelling about, having been to parties and barbecues. We have got to work on the drink driver problem throughout the year,' he said.

A number of country pubs have forsaken their traditional image and developed family restaurants as an alternative to beer and skittles. The bars at the Stag and Hounds at Churchill, a few miles from Cross, has been converted to a large eating area by Milestones Taverns and its 55-space car park is full following a 'two for one' meal offer. At every table, the man is drinking pints as an appetiser. A bottle of wine appears with the main course. Drinking is closely related to eating and there are no drunks.

But after three-and-a-half pints of lager - seven units of alcohol - an average customer of about 50 will get behind the wheel of a two-year-old Vauxhall Carlton. Like Peter in the White Hart, he will be confident his driving skill will see him and his wife home safely.

(Photograph omitted)