One more for the road - and the morgue

Another Christmas, another drink-drive TV campaign. Christian Wolmar examines just how far attitudes have changed
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We are in for our annual dose of shock treatment tonight when this year's Christmas anti-drink-drive commercial is screened for the first time. It is, like last year's effort, aimed at young people who drink in pubs - the most easily targeted group of drink-drivers. The ad shows a young man being egged on to have "one more" drink in the pub. Then it cuts to his mother feeding the same chap, urging him to have "one more" spoonful of food: he has been left brain-damaged after the inevitable crash that followed his binge.

Two decades of these shock ads have helped to change the social climate of drinking and driving. Drink-driving used to be considered a bit of a "laugh", the subject of pocket cartoons and comedians' jokes. Not any longer. It has become conventional wisdom that the drink-drive scourge has largely been beaten and that "one for the road" is as socially unacceptable as smoking in public places.

True, there has been an enormous social change, one of the great transformations in personal mores of recent years. Indeed, getting people not to drink and drive has become almost hip. This Christmas, Holsten Pils is running its own campaign and Coventry council has even taken to encouraging publicans to hand out blue ribbons to drivers as a way of reducing the stigma of not drinking when out with the lads.

This change in social behaviour has largely been brought about by a combination of enforcement - thanks to the introduction of the breathalyser and automatic driving bans - and the excellence of the anti-drink-drive advertising campaigns. But while the social acceptability of drink-driving has been reduced, it is not by as much as ministers and the drinks industry like to suggest.

There is still a massive carnage on the roads, a toll well in excess of, say, the death rate from Ecstasy or even heroin. Last year, there were 520 drink-drive-related deaths, 10 per week or one-seventh of all road deaths. Any other transport-related disaster on this scale, especially when it is clearly preventable, would lead to enormous public concern and promises of action by ministers.

Contrast this with yesterday's detailed inquiry into the sinking 15 years ago of the bulk carrier Derbyshire, in which 44 people died.

Among large elements of the population, drink-driving is still seen as acceptable. The Portman Group, a research body sponsored by the drinks industry, has identified four key groups among the 90,000 people (nearly all men - women represent 7 per cent of the total) still convicted each year of drink-driving offences. These are the "devastated professionals" who take a calculated risk on the way home from a party and find themselves up against the law; the "reckless" young drinkers; the "persisters", or alcoholics; and the frankly amoral "refuters" who aren't bothered if they do kill an old lady on the way home from the pub. There is also a fifth, heterogeneous group of one-offs, who cannot be put into any precise category.

Because young drinkers, aged 18 to 30, are the easiest to target, the ads tend to be aimed at them, but John Rae, director of the Portman Group and former headmaster of Westminster School, questions this strategy: "Directing the campaigns at young drinkers is fine, but it is important to find ways of aiming at other groups, too, if we are going to get the death toll down further."

There is a further problem about directing the publicity at pub drinking when young people increasingly take alcohol home to drink in front of the TV. Still, at least they will see the ads, unlike the young men in the pub.

The rate at which the death toll is now falling suggests that conventional methods of targeting drink-drivers are no longer effective. While the toll fell sharply, from 1,643 in 1979 to 1,110 in 1983, it has fallen much more slowly since, with the expectation, from preliminary results for the first half of the year, that this year's figures will show no reduction at all, or even a slight rise.

Rob Gifford, of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety, reckons that the time has come to change drink-drive rules. The current legal limit is 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, but Mr Gifford, along with the British Medical Association, argues that a reduction from 80mg to 50mg, along with the introduction of random breath- testing, would bring about a sharp reduction.

He points to Belgium, which on 1 December last year reduced the limit from 80mg to 50mg. That month, there was a 9.6 per cent drop in road accidents causing injuries and a 23 per cent fall in road deaths compared with the previous December.

Mr Gifford accepts that the publicity associated with the change helped to reduce the toll but argues: "There are lots of Belgians alive today who otherwise would have been dead. Surely that makes this type of change worthwhile." Mr Gifford says that there is increasing scientific evidence to suggest that 50mg is a better limit because that is the point when alcohol starts seriously to impair driving.

However, ministers are reluctant to introduce the change, let alone the "zero" limit advocated by some campaigners. The politicians' argument is echoed by John Rae, who says that retaining public support is all important: "If you reduce the level too much, then you lose public backing because people feel it is irrational. And once they start breaking the law, it becomes less of a barrier to further drinking."

This is refuted by Mr Gifford, who says the evidence from Belgium and Australia, where some states have also implemented lower limits, unequivocally shows that the incidence of severe overdrinking is reduced, along with more minor transgressions of the law.

The random breath-test debate is equally fraught. John Rae outlines the case against: "Random testing means setting up roadblocks and stopping everybody. That would be deeply unpopular."

In fact, the police can and do in effect already stop anyone they want to. The really big impact would come from the publicity associated with formally giving the police extra powers, which it is argued would deter many drink-drivers.

Mr Gifford believes it is time to test public acceptance of the idea: "Now that drink-driving is no longer socially acceptable, the majority of people who are not drink-drivers would be quite prepared to be stopped by the police."

Indeed, he is convinced that reducing the limit and bringing in random testing is inevitable: "As a society, we cannot continue tolerating 10 deaths per week."

Aged 25 to 44, they drink beer in a pub or at home before offending. They are often unemployed, in social classes C2, D and E, with previous convictions for drink driving and other crimes.

Aged 25 to 54, they drink beer in pubs before offending. They are C2DEs who deny that drink driving is wrong and feel that they are unlikely to be stopped. They believe they are good drivers who are unaffected by drinking.

Aged 25 to 44, they drink beer, wine and spirits in a pub or at home before offending. They are middle-aged ABs or C1s who are shocked at being branded criminals. They feel they are capable of driving after drinking.

Aged 25 to 35, they drink strong beer at home or at friends' homes before offending. They are C1s and C2s, inexperienced drivers with a carefree attitude to life, and easily influenced in a group. They know that their driving is impaired but still take the risk.