Call for major review of ‘inadequate’ drink-driving laws

The UK’s approach to drink-driving is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be significantly updated, according to a parliamentary advisory committee.

A new report from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) says that drink-driving offences have plateaued in the last decade and clear weaknesses in enforcement and rehabilitation need to be tackled to end this.

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The report, funded by the Department for Transport (DfT), calls for a new approach including increased police enforcement, lower limits in England and Wales, harsher penalties and better support for people with alcohol problems.

The latest data from the DfT shows that road deaths where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit have remained at around 240 per year for the last 10 years and drink-drive crashes rose three per cent. Drink-driving remains a major cause of road deaths, cited as a factor in 13 per cent of all road fatalities.

The PACTS report points to a 63 per cent drop in police enforcement since 2009 as one of the reasons for the lack of progress, with drivers also believing they are less likely to be caught.

It also highlights the rise in mental health and alcohol abuse problems related to the coronavirus pandemic as a cause for concern, with many drink-drive reoffenders identified as suffering from such issues.

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Among the report’s key recommendations are that the drink-drive limit in England and Wales be lowered. At 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, it is the highest in Europe. Lowering it to 50mg per 100ml would bring them in line with Scotland and most of Europe. Northern Ireland has legislated to reduce the limit to 50mg but has yet to implement it.

The report also recommends a “zero” (20mg) limit for professional drivers and newly qualified drivers.

It also highlights a need to reverse the decline in enforcement. It says more police enforcement, including mandatory breath testing, will not only catch more offenders but increase drivers’ fear of getting caught, leading to fewer offenders.

Enforcement has fallen 63 per cent since 2009 (Photo: Shutterstock)Enforcement has fallen 63 per cent since 2009 (Photo: Shutterstock)
Enforcement has fallen 63 per cent since 2009 (Photo: Shutterstock)

Mandatory or “random” breath testing, already used in Northern Ireland, allows officers to test any driver not just those they suspect of drink-driving, often at organised traffic stops.

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The report highlights the impact of alcohol addiction, particularly in relation to serial reoffenders, and calls for specialists rehabilitation courses for those with mental health problems or alcohol addiction.

It also recommends harsher penalties for any driver caught under the influence of both drink and drugs, such as inclusion in the High Risk Offender Scheme which requires them to undergo a medical examination before getting a new licence.

Commenting on the report, David Davies, executive director of PACTS, said: “Drink-driving is often cited as a road safety success story, yet it remains a major killer and progress has ground to a halt since 2010. Not only is better enforcement important but also the problems of mental health and alcohol dependency need to be recognised.

“The problem is not a simple one of law enforcement. It requires a more comprehensive approach. The legal limit should be reduced in England and Wales, police should be given additional powers to test drivers, the High Risk Offender Scheme should be reformed, rehabilitation courses should be designed for those with mental health and alcohol problems, and the growing danger of combining drink and drugs driving needs to be addressed.

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“A lower limit is not a magic bullet but government policies to reduce drink driving will lack credibility as long as they avoid this change.

RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said the report highlighted the need for a new approach to drink-driving, including the use of technology to reduce reoffending.

He said: “The plain fact is that there has been virtually no progress in reducing drink-driving deaths for nearly a decade, so something different clearly needs to be done.

“Seeing as the level of reoffending is so high, we believe this needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency. A year and a half ago the Government said it was looking at the benefits so-called ‘alcolocks’ to reduce reoffending, so it is high time a clear plan was put together that sets out how this technology will be now introduced to reduce future deaths. ongoing issue around enforcement and giving the police the resources they need also needs attention, especially as the report shows drink-driving goes hand-in-hand with drug-taking.”