January 17, 2020

Reaching the limit on drink-driving? Government considers zero-tolerance approach

"Our current drink-drive limit gives a false impression that it is acceptable to mix alcohol and driving - which couldn’t be further from the truth. Decisive action is needed to end this blight on our roads and prevent the needless loss of life."[1]

Following a report published by the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC)[2] arguing for the introduction of a zero-tolerance drink-driving limit in 2020, we consider the proposals and whether such a ban should be adopted in the UK.

To drink or not to drink?

The effects of alcohol on driving are well-known and can include:

  • reduced ability to judge speed and distance;

  • false sense of confidence and increased tendency to take risks;

  • reduced co-ordination and concentration;

  • slower reaction times; and

  • impaired vision and impaired perception of obstacles.

Drivers convicted of "drink-driving" face a number of penalties depending on the seriousness of their offending. There is a minimum 12 month mandatory disqualification for all drivers who are caught driving above the legal alcohol limit. Drivers can also face an unlimited fine and a prison sentence.

The consequences of drink-driving can be fatal and the statistics themselves are shocking. Driving under the influence of alcohol is one of the four main killers on the road, alongside speeding, non-use of seatbelts and driver distraction[3]. Over 9,000 people were killed or injured in drink-drive accidents in 2016 in the UK[4] and this is mirrored across other European countries, with 25% of all road deaths in the EU being alcohol-related[5].

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limit for drivers is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (Scotland has a lower limit of 50 mg). Yet many campaigners argue that the UK’s drink drive limit is shockingly high; in fact it is the highest in Europe - no doubt contributing to the myth that one or two drinks is fine for the road. The European Commission recommends a maximum of 50mg/100ml blood, but some countries such as Sweden and Poland have a limit of 20mg/100ml blood - effectively a zero tolerance approach[6].

Whilst the temptation may be to judge your own ability to drive after drinking, even very small amounts of alcohol can significantly slow reaction times and therefore increase the risk of crashing. An estimated 65 road deaths per year are caused by drivers who are under the drink-drive limit, but have a significant amount of alcohol in their blood[7].

Zero-tolerance approach

The EU recently set a target to reduce deaths and serious injuries on the road by half by 2030. As part of their report, the ETSC has recommended a package of measures to help prevent up to 5,000 alcohol-linked road deaths every year. These include[8]:

  • Improving data collection of alcohol-related road deaths and mandating systematic testing of all road users involved in a collision with injury.

  • Considering adopting a zero tolerance level (i.e. maximum BAC of 0.2g/l) for all road users.

  • Intensifying enforcement and coupling enforcement with publicity activities.

  • Developing use of alcohol interlocks as part of rehabilitation programmes for first time high-level and recidivist offenders.

  • Mandating the use of alcohol interlocks for professional drivers.

  • Running regular campaigns.

Currently only seven out of 28 EU countries have a standard BAC limit of 0.2 g/l or below; 0.1 and 0.2 are effectively equivalent to zero tolerance, while still allowing for consumption of certain medicines, or drinks marketed as alcohol free. 17 countries with a standard BAC limit of 0.5 g/l have introduced lower limits for novice and professional drivers.

In Scotland, which introduced its lower limit in December 2014, early research was extremely positive, showing a 20% reduction in fatal road accidents in the first year[9]. However, more recent studies have questioned the long-term impact.  In October 2018, researchers from the University of Strathclyde found that the lower limit had not been followed by a statistically significant overall drop in road fatalities, including during peak collision periods at night-time and weekends[10]. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the cultural impact on Scottish drivers has been clear, with two thirds of respondents recently confirming that they now no longer drive after one alcoholic drink[11].

The European Council has recently approved technology that will see breathalysers being fitted into all new cars from 2022, potentially preventing drink drivers from starting their engines.  This will require all new vehicles from 2022 to be capable of being fitted with an alcohol interlock via a standard interface between the vehicle and the device. Studies suggest that alcohol interlocks can offer an effective and cost-beneficial improvement to road safety, particularly for repeat offenders and commercial vehicles[12].

Ellen Townsend, policy director of ETSC said: “Almost 70 years since the first scientific evidence was published on the link between drink-driving and road deaths – it is impossible to accept that thousands of families are still being ripped apart every year in the EU because of it.

In 2020, we want to see the EU and Member States, coming up with a vision to end drink-driving once and for all with a combination of zero-tolerance limits, a big step-up in enforcement and wider use of technology such as mandatory use of alcohol interlocks in buses, lorries and vans.”  

Whilst the levels of drink and drug driving may be increasing[13], repeated campaigns have raised public disapproval of drink and drug driving, with research indicating the majority of UK drivers would support random drug and alcohol testing by the Police, to curb such driving. The research, in conjunction with insurer Direct Line, found that 7 in 10 drivers said that they would welcome random drug and alcohol testing by the police with only 1 in 10 disagreeing[14].

Next steps

The Government has yet to confirm whether it will follow the recommendations of the ETSC and of course Brexit may have an impact on implementation and timescales. What is clear is that pressure is mounting to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drink-driving and in turn save lives.

In the words of Katherine Brown, director at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, "Recent decades have seen great improvements in road safety, but progress on drink-driving has ground to a halt. With hundreds of lives lost each year, we can’t afford to let England and Wales fall behind our neighbours in road safety standards. It’s time the Government looked at the evidence and what other countries are doing to save lives and make roads safer. We need to make drink-driving a thing of the past, and to do this we need a lower drink drive limit."[15]

Authors: Kate Hargan, Senior Associate, and Luisa Lister, Professional Support Lawyer

[1] Quote from Joshua Harris, Directors of campaigns for Brake

[2] https://etsc.eu/progress-in-reducing-drink-driving-in-europe-2019/

[3] https://etsc.eu/wp-content/uploads/reducingdrinkdriving_031219_design_final.pdf

[4]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/732650/drink-drive-final-estimates-2016.pdf

[5] https://etsc.eu/wp-content/uploads/reducingdrinkdriving_031219_design_final.pdf

[6] http://www.brake.org.uk/news/10-whats-happening/take-action/595-a-zero-tolerance-drink-drive-limit-for-the-uk

[7] https://www.insurethebox.com/dangers-of-drink-driving/

[8] https://etsc.eu/wp-content/uploads/reducingdrinkdriving_031219_design_final.pdf

[9] https://roadsafetygb.org.uk/news/more-scottish-drivers-adopting-zero-tolerance-drink-drive-approach/

[10] https://roadsafetygb.org.uk/news/lower-drink-driving-limit-has-little-effect-on-road-deaths/

[11] https://alcosense.co.uk/news/scots-say-cut-drink-drive-limit.html

[12] ECORYS ( 2014), Study on the prevention of drink-driving by the use of alcohol interlock devices; https://goo.gl/U8kBvU

[13] https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/fleet-industry-news/2019/12/10/randomly-test-drivers-for-drugs-and-alcohol-says-brake

[14] https://news.motors.co.uk/statistics/uk-drivers-in-favour-of-random-drug-and-alcohol-testing/

[15] Katherine Brown, director at the Institute of Alcohol Studies- http://www.bodyshopmag.com/2016/news/lets-put-a-brake-on-drink-driving/