Leading article:Alcohol and petrol are a killing mix

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It is selfish, dangerous and morally wrong to drive after two pints of beer. Anyone who does turns their car, or van, or motorbike into a killing machine. The Government should not prevaricate: it is time to cut the legal limit.

Almost everyone does it: two pints, several glasses of wine, "nothing over the top". Then, still well within the legal limit, climb behind the wheel and zoom home. But we know very well that every sip increases the chance of killing or maiming someone. Even a half of lager swilled by a sensible motorist at lunchtime raises the risk of an accident while driving back to the office in the afternoon. Concentration ebbs, judgement slows, and drivers fail to react as quickly to events on the road. Young drivers are worst. The under 25s are four times more likely to have an accident if they have drunk up to the current legal limit than if they have had no alcohol at all. But the policeman that pulls them over after several pints in the pub cannot prosecute, because they are not breaking the law.

The present permitted level of 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood - around two pints for the average bloke - is too high for someone who controls more than a ton of metal on public streets. The risk of a slight error of judgement is just too high to be acceptable, when it is so obviously avoidable.

The Scottish police want to bring the limit down to 50mg (around one pint). They say the lower limit could have prevented 213 fatal and serious drink-related accidents in Scotland between 1989 and 1993. Government figures suggest 14 lives a year could be saved in England and Wales, with the lower limit - worth some restraint over that second drink, surely.

Doctors agree. The British Medical Association represents the professionals who have to stitch the victims back together again. For years they have been calling for lower limits. Now the English and Welsh police are ready to add to the clamour.

Cutting the legal limit sets the standard, sends a message, and helps police make the streets safe. Alcohol and petrol are an inflammatory mixture. Anyone who flicks the ignition after more than a few glasses of wine should be prosecuted, fined, banned from driving, and in the worst cases imprisoned.

Why doesn't the Government act now? Because politicians think they already have a "winning formula" and they want to stick with it. Nonsense. It is true that deaths on the road have fallen over the 30 years since the breath test was first introduced. But this is exactly the time to build on our success, not sit content with present levels of drink-driving. For the record, the number of drink-related road deaths has stopped falling in recent years, and actually rose last year.

Last Christmas Steven Norris, the then Transport Minister, came up with a different excuse for avoiding a lower limit. He said it was not practical. But the Australians seem to have managed it perfectly well. Those lager- swilling Aussies have cut their legal limit, and claim substantial success in cutting their drink-driving levels as a result.

The Department of Transport seems to believe Britain is different. Mr Norris claimed: "There is no point in setting the limit at zero or any other figure if people simply ignore it." Mr Norris is out of date. Five years ago his assessment of public support for a lower limit might have been accurate. Not any more.

Attitudes towards alcohol have changed. We don't drink and drive the way we used to 20 years ago. We don't drink and work in the same way either. The time was when colleagues who now stick to fizzy water would have tailed down the pub for several pints at lunchtime. JR used to stroll into his office each morning at Ewing Oil and hit the whisky. Clerks at the Bank of England at the turn of the century actually had bars opened for them within Bank walls, so that alcohol could ease the strain of dull and boring work. Today employees who get sozzled over their sandwiches are frowned on. Years of drink-driving campaigns have changed people's perception of what is acceptable. In Scotland last year fewer than 1.5 per cent of the drivers stopped and tested were over the limit, compared to 19 per cent when seasonal clampdowns began a decade ago. Younger drivers are even less likely to hit the throttle after hitting the bottle: three-quarters of under-25s told recent surveys that they never drink and drive, compared to less than two-thirds of older drivers.

The police now think they can enforce a lower limit. Now that they have random breath testing, and stricter sentencing, the risks associated with getting caught over the limit are much, much higher. A one-year driving ban, for many of us, is just not worth thinking about; the inconvenience would be so immense. If the legal limit falls, most of us will drink less, partly because we accept that we ought to, and partly because of the risk of being caught. Slowly but surely we are moving towards zero tolerance of alcohol on the roads.

It has taken us a long time, but finally in Britain we are starting to establish a mature approach to alcohol. In moderation, it is relaxing, sociable and might even be good for our health. It can be a delightful social lubrication. For that, we should enjoy it. But we should not pretend that we can drive at the same time. The Government should make our roads safer by setting standards that we all know make sense.