The (potential) new drink drive limit

Some observations on the plans to reduce the drink drive limit in the UK from 80 mg alcohol/100 ml blood to 50 mg, suggested by the North Report.

1. The current level is not strongly enforced. Wouldn’t it make more sense to enforce it more strongly than to change it?

2. The penalty for driving above the current limit is severe – 12 months loss of licence and a large fine – if a new lower limit were introduced it would make sense to have a sliding scale of punishment, perhaps starting with just a fine.

3. The notion that an accident is caused by alcohol if alcohol is present in the bloodstream of a driver involved in an accident is logically false. To obtain the contribution of alcohol to accidents you need to subtract from the accident rates of those who have been drinking the accident rates experienced by those who have not.

4. Is there good evidence that many accidents are caused by people who are between 50 and 80 mg/100 ml blood?

5. I enjoy a glass or two of wine with a meal, even if I have to drive home. I’m not over the current limit after this, and I have never had an accident after having a drink. I would be upset to have this pleasure taken away.

6. The current system works quite well: the UK has a very low rate of road accidents compared with other countries.

6. So drinking a little alcohol may statistically increase the risk of an accident. But so does being old (slower reflexes) or young (recklessness). Should we stop the young and old driving? A line has to be drawn somewhere, but exactly where? Common sense is called for.

20 comments to The (potential) new drink drive limit

  • Philip

    I partially agree. There is in fact quite a lot of enforcement, and has been for 20 or 30 years. Culturally, the British (especially younger Britons) understand you shouldn’t drink and drive – something that is not true in, for example, France, with its much lower drink-drive limit. The same’s true of seat belt wearing.
    What has to be addressed – and this report doesn’t – is the problem that some people feel entitled to drive wherever and whenever they want to – and also to drink whatever and whenever they want to. A sense of entitlement is often offensive and when it involves alcohol and machinery, potentially lethal to those who hold it, their friends and families, plus innocent bystanders.

  • Alex Lake

    I read that “research conclusively proves…” that hundreds of lives would be saved. As an avid follower of Ben Goldacre, I’m trained to spot a lie when I see one and this is giving off all the signs. But why not let’s see if we can follow up the research. Let’s hope it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. If anyone has the reference, do tell!

  • Alex Lake

    The plot thickens….

    The scientist responsible for the latest pronouncement has a vested interest in technology designed to enforce drink-drive limits http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1866488.stm

  • On your third and fourth points, there’s a good study done by the RSA in Ireland from 2003 relating to alcohol and fatal crashes (PDF). There’s probably equivalent studies done in Britain.

    On your fifth point, god forbid you and I are deprived of our pleasures. Since becoming a father, I’ve chosen to forego that pleasure if I’m driving, even if it is just that one glass.

    Why? Like yourself, Jamie, I have a background in Science, Physiology, in my case and just to university undergraduate level. However, I clearly remember one of the experiments on how alcohol affected reaction times. At just under the limit (around 1 pint of beer), reaction times were on average 6 times slower. I’m sure there are more empircal studies out there with better numbers, but it’s an experiment I’ll always remember. 6 times slower and under the limit.

    Never having an accident is the same as house, share or Bordeaux prices rising 10% year on year for the last 5 years. They have no bearing on what could happen in the future.

    If some silly bugger pulls out in front of you, brakes suddenly or whatever, and because your reactions are impaired because of “just that one glass”, you smash him, sure, you’re under the limit and sure you’re legally in the clear, but who is to say that you may have averted it if you had foregone just that one glass?

    I think the common sense and responsibility lies with the driver – just don’t take a drink if you’re going to drive. End of story. And I’d be happy to have a zero drink and drive policy.

    Lar

  • I agree with Philip. Jamie, the problem I have with number five is that it doesn’t greatly matter if you haven’t had an accident so far after having a glass or two, but you still could. Even if you don’t notice it, alcohol still affects your reaction times. There’s a greater risk of having a crash if you had a drink than if you haven’t and if it saves only one life a year by decreasing the limit, then – even if the report suggesting such is flawed – it’s worth it.

  • Bart

    Can’t say I agree with some of your points on this Jamie.

    Consider an experiment were there are two scenarios; First one you have had 1 or 2 glasses of wine over 2 hours and are at 50mg/100mL (like we have here in Australia) and second one you have had 2 or 3 and are at 80mg/100 (0.08).

    Now in each scenario pretend your children are standing in the middle of the road (as they have stepped out without looking for oncoming traffic). You are in your car approaching them at high speed (within the posted speed limit), without much time to react. Would you rather have blood/alcohol levels at 50mg or 80mg per 100ml?

    What does common sense dictate here?

  • Alex Lake

    Excuse me, but what a stupid question!

  • Mark

    Zero limit is the only reasonable limit, given the point made by previous posters regarding reaction times.

  • william beavington

    Alex – I strongly disagree with you – why do you think this is a “stupid question”? – asking people to imagine their own children in front of them is an excellent question to focus the mind on the consequences. Well done Bart.

  • Alex Lake

    Firstly – apologies, the way I phrased the question was rude, but this continual use of children to make a point is (to my mind, at least) a cheap shot. The old “if it saves the life of a child” argument.

    I would rather society based its policies on considered risk. If saving lives of children is an argument that trumps all, one can think of a whole load of personal freedoms that would be curtailed.

    I have children and I do let them take risks (eg. crossing roads during the daytime). Show me the evidence that really makes the point (increased reaction times is only a proxy measurement and “6 times” isn’t really a useful measure of anything) and I’ll join the campaign.

  • Richard

    Sorry, Jamie, but I can’t agree with you on every point here. Regarding your last point, I personally feel that everyone should have to sit a new driving test at a specific age – be it 60, 65, 70… It wouldn’t need to be a full test but some sort of reaction test would be beneficial.
    When it comes to drink driving, zero limits are impractical given the morning-after effect, alcohol being present in medicines etc. However, a sensible level of 50mg should be enforced – and no sliding scale on penalties either. The fact is that alcohol is a factor in 430 road deaths every year in Britain. While this figure may be lower than some of our neighbours, it is still 430 dead people and bereaved families – all so we can enjoy a glass of wine or three before driving. That’s simply not acceptable.
    Solution: get a taxi or don’t drink.

  • william beavington

    OK Alex – I understand your point a bit better – it sharpened my mind no end to think of my own children might be standing in front of the car…

  • I think Jamie presented his point of view a little recklessly (“I would be upset to have this pleasure taken away” is not a good argument), but it is a good point. In my country (Czech Republic) we have no alcohol toleration (strongly enforced) and very high rate of road accident victims (officially 985 in 2008 in a population of 10 million). In my view, if a driver kills somebody, it would not help any if driver was sober. On the contrary, my ex-wife used to make jokes that she prefers to travel with me when I’m drunk because I pay more attention to driving :o) That’s my point – people drive more carefully after drinking a glass of alcohol (at least I do). When I’m guilty (in advance) for drinking a glass of wine, I am a different driver. I do not hurry, I pay more attention, I would not drive into a crossroad in high speed. I am really carefull. I would really take care not to hurt anybody because I am really responsible. And just to make sure, I am not a lawyer of drunks, I am talking about a glass of wine, not a bottle of Scotch. Sorry for my English :o) but the topic is important. I believe that European statistics show that zero toleration doesn’t not help any – if you would waste you time to study statistics. Car drivers’ alcohol toleration is political question, not a question of facts and arguments.

  • Here in Norway the limit is 20 mg/100 ml. blood. Very strict indeed. I think perhaps too strict. I cannot find the source now, but I remember reading a study that showed no effect on reaction times up to 40mg/100 ml – but a quick deterioration after this. If this is the case, 40mg/100 ml would seem a sensible limit.

    When I learnt to drive my father’s first remark as we set off has followed me ever since and has been the most useful advice of all regarding driving: “Remember: you are now in possession of a lethal weapon!” We make mistakes all the time, but when driving the undesired effects of our mistakes can be much worse than in alomst any other context.

  • One of the problems I have in this discussion is that I have no idea what blood alc level I’m at after a couple of pints of beer or a couple of glasses of wine. I feel fine to drive (and if I do, I do so carefully) – I suspect that I’m well below the legal limit, from discussions with others, but the official advice looks very cautious (1.5 pints of beer).

  • Samuel

    Jamie, that is the problem with a statutory 50mg limit (or any limit) there are too many variables to say that at 49mg you are safe and 51mg you loose you licence.
    My experiences:
    I was an 18 years old male, a brand new driver, one of the highest risk categories, at best trying to be responsible and at the least trying to protect my shiny new licence.
    I walked into the local police station late morning on New Years Day 1994 and asked to be breathalysed to check if it was safe to drive my car home.
    I was advised that they could only breathalyse me as part of a routine check and was advised not to drive home if I felt I was still over the limit, and that is the ridiculousness of a limit. You may feel ok, but legally your not and you have no way of knowing unless your stopped by the police “slamming the proverbial stable door shut, with the horse no where to be seen.”
    The Police reinforced this by refusing to breathalyse me on the grounds that the breath test could give a false indication I was safe to drive and if involved in an accident and the blood test showed I was over the limit there were legal implications.
    The following new year, I was working and agreed to collect my sister from town in the early hours of the morning, I was stopped and breathalysed on the way into town and again on the way out.
    My conclusion, the limits are not so much set for our protection but prosecution.
    A reduction from an unquantifiable 80mg limit to an unquantifiable 50mg limit will not arbitrarily reduce the number of accidents but will no doubt increase the number of prosecutions.
    To throw my hat in the ring regarding “saving the life of a child”
    This post has promoted me to consider my own attitudes to drink driving – enough for me to comment.
    As a rule, I will have one pint after work and drive home, but I don’t have one if I am driving the children. I find that some what hypercritical of myself.

  • Alex Lake

    You can buy breathalyser devices. I’ve got one and have been amazed at how low the readings are (but this is a common finding).

  • Andy

    Well done Jamie, I totally agree with you but would like to add that there are so many things in our cars these days that can distract our attention and therefore increase our reaction time that should be addressed before the drink drive limit. Number one of course is the mobile phone. I still can’t understand why the message has not got across to drivers that using a phone while driving is not acceptable.

    Point 3 is interesting, I have often wondered how many of those accidents would have happened anyway. Someone can run into the back of you but if you are over the limit it is suddenly your fault. I in no way condone drinking and driving and rarely have more than a pint if I’m driving and I always do my own risk assesment, ie. if I’m going to do a long journey on the motorway or at high speed then I don’t drink, but if I’m going to a pub 3 miles away down low speed roads outside of rush hour then it’s more likely to be OK, but I’ll also consider my state of mind, am I relaxed or stressed after a day at work, am I tired etc.

    I try not to put myself in any situation where I need super sharp reflexes to save a life, whether driving or otherwise. If I have to drive down a narrow road with parked cars where a child could run out I’ll drive slower, just because the speed limit is 30 it doesn’t mean you have to do 30, don’t treat the speed limit as a target. I’m all in favour of speed limits being drastically reduced in residential area’s I’m sure that would save many more lives than reducing the drink drive limit and yes there should be sliding scales. How can being 1mg over the limit be compared with being 25% over and compare 25% over with being 100% over.

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