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Drink-Driving: Arrests

Volume 479: debated on Monday 21 July 1986

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2.53 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question not unlike that standing in my name on the Order Paper. A vital word has been omitted from the Order Paper—not, I think, by me. My Question should relate not to 16,000 motorists, but to 16,000 innocent motorists.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take drastically to reduce the number of innocent motorists (16,000) who are arrested annually on suspicion of being drunk.

My Lords, the Government have no proposals to amend the law. The police have powers to enforce the law, and the use made of these powers is a matter for chief officers of police. The roadside screening devices are intended solely to allow a constable to decide whether he has reasonable cause to suspect that the level of alcohol in a driver's body exceeds the legal limit and whether the driver may be arrested. As delays between the roadside and evidential test may lead to reductions in a driver's level of alcohol I am satisfied that the devices operate within acceptable tolerances.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, but ought not the preliminary test be to eliminate the innocent and thus protect them from being arrested? Is it not failing to an unacceptable extent to do that?

My Lords, the Government and the police are conscious of the need to minimise the number of people arrested who are subsequently found to be below the limit. It is of course vital, given the number of people killed or injured on our roads as a result of drink-driving, that the police should have the necessary powers to enforce the law. In 1984, 388 people were killed and 19,303 people seriously injured in accidents where a driver was found to be over the legal limit or where he refused a give a sample. Surely the figures speak for themselves.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a scheme that is working quite satisfactorily, I understand, in the United States, where a person who feels that he may be just on the border line, or just over the limit, can put a coin into a machine and the machine will tell him how he stands?

My Lords, I was not aware of that, but there are, I believe, devices in this country as well which people can use. Nevertheless, the onus is on people not to drink if they are going to drive.

My Lords, how can you tell whether a person is drunk unless there is a test?

My Lords, how can you tell whether a person is drunk if he does not have a test?

My Lords, the important thing is for the driver to be able to tell; and he should know that if he has a drink, he should not drive.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord appreciate that while we are greatly concerned with the number of motorists who may be wrongly arrested, we are also concerned with the staggering figure given in the other place in July that one-quarter of all the road fatalities are drink-related? The noble Lord may recall that during consideration of the Transport Bill 1981 we had considerable discussion on the relative balance between evidential breath testing accuracy and the proper need for enforcement. Is not the problem that of education, publicity and enforcement? Have steps been taken recently to get together all the organisations concerned to review the position?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord will agree that his question goes quite wide. Certainly it is important that there should be education. All drivers should surely be aware that drink and driving do not mix. This question relates particularly to the difficulties of those innocent motorists who are arrested. What I have described gives light to the fact, surely, that the number of people who do drink and drive is far too great.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that most of us in your Lordships' House would prefer that 100 innocent motorists are arrested rather than that one guilty motorist should go free if he was driving while the worse for drink?

My Lords, it is important that the police have accurate devices to measure those motorists whom they believe to have alcohol in their systems when they are stopped. That is the important point. Of course, the devices that are used are those which are being developed and I am sure that they will be worked upon in the future.

My Lords, since I was myself arrested in Birdcage Walk and discharged honourably without a stain on my character on arrival at Rochester Row police station, doubtless the noble Lord will sympathise with my sense of indignation. Can he tell the House what percentage of those convicted is represented by the 16,000 innocents who were arrested without proper cause?

My Lords, I cannot do a quick sum off the top of my head, but I shall certainly let the noble Earl know.