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Blood Alcohol Levels For Drivers: Ecc Report

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1998

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6.25 p.m.

rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (16th Report, HL Paper 82).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before getting into the substance of our report, I should like to express my thanks to a number of people. First, I thank our specialist adviser, Dr. Andrew Clayton of the British Institute of Traffic Education Research. He brought to our deliberations enormous expertise and guided us subtly through them. My thanks also go to our secretary, Jane Sanders, who worked tirelessly on any number of redrafts.

My particular thanks go to our Clerk, Kate Ball, whose first inquiry this was. She joined the committee office only in October of last year. I will not say that this was a baptism by fire; she certainly learnt an enormous amount, not least about the idiosyncrasies of her chairman's grammar. Finally, I thank all members of Sub-committee B who were most tolerant of their chairman. I am delighted that six out of the nine—excluding myself—are speaking this evening, though I am not entirely certain whether their motive is only interest in the subject matter or whether they also want to ensure that their chairman does his job properly. Time will tell!

The committee's inquiry was probably one of the most interesting ones in which I have ever participated. It was prompted by interviews given by the European Commissioner for Transport—Neil Kinnock—in the media proposing the revival of a directive which has been gathering dust since 1988. The proposal was to harmonise the permitted blood alcohol level for drivers at 50mg/100ml. The present limit in the United Kingdom, as I am sure all noble Lords are aware, is 80mg/100ml. Currently, nine of the 15 member states have a 50mg limit with two further member states currently introducing legislation to that effect—the details of that are on footnote 6 on page 10 of our report.

During the inquiry the Government announced a consultation on the document Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps. That paper invited comment on a number of issues that the committee was considering in the course of its inquiry into the European Commission's proposal. The Government's consultation period ends in two days' time on 8th May and I express my thanks to the usual channels for the timing of this debate.

Our committee took evidence from 23 witnesses of whom 12 gave oral evidence. The duration of our inquiry was four months, though that included the Christmas Recess.

Each year around 540 people are killed in the United Kingdom because of drink driving. Interestingly and infuriatingly that number has stuck at 540 or very close to it since 1993. Equally, the figure of 540 represents only 14 per cent. of the total of fatal road accidents, which leaves 86 per cent. which have other causes.

Sadly, comparable figures across the European Union are not available. Estimates from other member states varied from 1 per cent. of road accident fatalities in Italy to 40 per cent. in France. Frankly, we do not believe either. However, the committee was concerned—this is spelt out in paragraph 88 of the report—that the emphasis of pursuing the 14 per cent. may well be out of proportion to looking at the causes of the 86 per cent.

The committee found that the actual permitted blood-alcohol level was only one of a number of ways in which to tackle drink driving. As our report states in paragraph 85,
"A package of measures, rather than any single [measure] would be the most effective way to [tackle drink driving.]"
The committee looked at a four-way matrix of countermeasures involving penalties, enforcement, publicity and education, and the legal limit. Of these four, penalties and enforcement were, in our opinion, by far the most important.

Penalties for drink driving vary widely across the European Union. In Britain the minimum is 12 months' disqualification for the first drink driving offence and three years' disqualification for any subsequent offence within 10 years of the first. This compares with Sweden where drink driving with a blood-alcohol content over 100mg/100ml carries a maximum prison sentence, or electronic surveillance, of two years. At the other extreme, in Belgium an offence between 50 and 80 milligrams carries a suspension from driving for three hours—a sort of "sin bin" approach. The committee recommended that the minimum 12-month penalty should stay, even at a lower limit. This penalty has, in our opinion, done an enormous amount to keep the numbers of fatal drink-drive accidents at a level which is one of the best in the European Union.

There are two main identifiable groups of drink drivers. The first are young, inexperienced drivers who account for nearly 30 per cent. of drink-drive accidents. In our opinion, specific education is needed in schools on the dangers of combining drinking and driving. We do not, however, recommend different limits or penalties for the reasons that we spelt out in our report, not least that it would give an incorrect message. For instance, if the penalties were greater for the younger driver up to, say, age 24, then at the age of 25 the same person would say, "Good, I can now drink more". We were concerned at the thought process of having tiered penalties for young drivers.

The second of the two main identifiable groups are those who drive well over—and I emphasise "well over"—the legal limit. These drivers are known by different terms in different countries. But in our experience they were known as high risk offenders; the HROs. They account for over half of drink-driving accidents. At any one time that group, according to the evidence we received, represents about 85,000 disqualified drivers in Great Britain and nearly 30,000 of those are recidivist drink drivers—repeat offenders. The committee recommended that in the United Kingdom the blood-alcohol content at which a drink driver becomes a high risk offender should be reduced from the present 200mg/100ml to 150mg/100ml. In addition, at that limit of 150mg, we recommended that stiffer minimum penalties should apply.

The committee took evidence from experts in Germany and Sweden on how they deal with high risk offenders. In Germany the high risk offender, at the end of the disqualification period, has to undergo a medical-psychological assessment which involves an assessment by both a doctor and a psychologist before being given back his or her licence. In Sweden HROs are required to undertake an assessment for alcohol dependency lasting between three and six months.

The committee recommends most strongly that the HRO assessment in the United Kingdom should incorporate some of these features, particularly a more rigorous examination over a period of time involving psychological as well as medical assessment.

Police powers of enforcement vary across the EU. In some member states, including the United Kingdom and Germany, the police require "reasonable suspicion" before a breath test. Other member states—for example, France—use road blocks. Outside the European Union random breath testing is used in some Australian states. The committee were not in favour of either road blocks or random breath testing. However, we favoured targeted enforcement. By that we mean pinpointing large groups of people; for instance, large sporting occasions or rock concerts where it is known that alcohol is consumed. We could see every justification why the police should be able to target those specific points.

We also favoured evidential road-side testing. That is a somewhat more controversial aspect, but we were of the opinion, from the evidence that we received, that the technology of evidential road-side testing was now sufficient that it could be relied on in court. We believe that the introduction of evidential road-side testing would release a lot of police time in having to take someone who is initially over the limit, according to the initial breath test, to a police station where two or three more police are involved.

We believe—again, this is perhaps a controversial opinion—that road policing should be made a core objective of police policy. We believe that that would reduce the number of accidents, raise the profile of road policing and stimulate increased police activity in enforcing road safety legislation.

We also favoured the introduction of—my apologies for this rather large expression—the breath alcohol ignition interlock devices. That is quite a mouthful. In lay terms that is equipment fitted into a car into which a driver has to blow or breathe. The car will not start if the content of that breath is at a level in excess of the level set on the machine.

We also favoured—interestingly, police evidence was against this—the use of home breathalyser kits. It was put to us that this could be dangerous because such kits would not be sufficiently checked or calibrated and could give wrong evidence to the driver. Nevertheless, we took the view that it would be a helpful aid to drivers so that they could get some idea of whether they were over the limit.

We very much favoured the Government's latest campaign slogan, "None for the road". We thought that that was more effective than the old message, "Don't drink and drive", which has been around for a long time. We thought that "None for the road" was a good, catchy expression and should be repeated. However, we strongly did not favour any attempt to define how many drinks one could have in order to get to whatever the limit may be. At that stage we were not talking about 80 or 50 milligrams. The reason is that it varies enormously with the individual and literally depends on the size and metabolism of the individual. It could well be that a rather slight anorexic lady—I do not wish to be sexist on this—might well be over the top, whatever the limit might be, on one-and-a-half glasses of wine, but a second row England rugby player may well be able to have four pints. One simply cannot say that a limit equals so many glasses because each individual is different.

We looked only peripherally at the subject of drugs and driving. We found that the data was very sparse. The committee recommended more research into the effects of drugs on driving performance. We recognised, however, that there were problems in measuring impairment. The committee found no evidence of clear benefits of action at Community level. We rejected the idea of harmonisation across the European Union. I am using here my own words and not those of the committee. It appears a nonsense to try to harmonise the limit across the European Union and still leave hugely differing penalties and enforcement. It just does not make any sense.

Finally, and perhaps of the least importance in our deliberations, we came to the one that the media likes best or gets most excited about; namely, the actual limit itself. We came to the conclusion that reducing the legal limit would make only a marginal difference to the number of accidents. The majority, however, did come to the conclusion that it would have an important psychological effect, as part of a package of measures, as I have already outlined. The report therefore recommended that on balance the drink-drive limit in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 50mg/100ml. That is spelt out in some detail in paragraphs 111 to 114 of our report.

We then tried to find what that might mean in terms of the saving of life, and here we ran into quite wide differences in estimates. The Government's consultation paper, which is an extremely impressive document, worked through in a logical sequence and came to the opinion that reducing the figure from 80mg to 50mg would probably save 50 lives per year. However, in the same document and indeed in other evidence we received the figures indicated that that reduction from 80mg to 50mg would equal somewhere between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. That, in purely arithmetic terms, works out at 16 lives.

I am not at all saying that any lives saved are not well worth while, but I think it is important that the House should understand the perspective of this and the numbers we are talking about. According to our evidence, it is somewhere between 16 and 50.

I would ask Members of the House, either now or perhaps after this debate, to look carefully at Annex I on page 34 of our report. This extremely interesting graph shows where the impairment bites. You will see three curves there: one for young drivers; one, if you like, for average drivers; and one for the heavy-risk offenders. They break at different points. For the young driver it is approximately 50mg; for the average driver it is somewhere around 80mg; and for the heavy-risk offender it is well up, probably about 150mg, when the graph really starts to go vertical.

I am sure your Lordships will have observed that at sub-committee level there was disagreement. That is spelt out in annex 2 of our report. Those who are very observant may have seen that the chairman of Sub-Committee B—namely, myself—abstained. I did that because I favoured the minority view in fact, but I thought it incorrect, as chairman of the committee, to support the minority view and at the same time still try to put forward the committee's report: namely, the majority view.

I held that view very strongly at the Select Committee, where, as will be observed from Appendix 3, there was again a difference of opinion and again I state quite clearly that I abstained. I abstained at that stage because I thought it was totally incorrect for the Select Committee to try to reverse the findings of a sub-committee whose members had spent four months looking into this subject. I felt that the Select Committee should not try to do it simply on a reading of the report. So my motives for abstention were actually quite different on the two occasions.

I declare my hand. I am actually in favour of a reduction in the limit for drink driving but I do not personally consider that it is worth going from 80mg to 50mg. To use slightly lay terms, I would regard that as "tinkering" with the system. If the limit is to be lowered—and I repeat that I personally believe it should be—then I think it should be lowered to an effective zero, which, according to the Swedish evidence—and they probably know more about this subject than anyone else in the European Union—is 10mg/100ml. At the moment Sweden has 20mg, and Dr. Laurell, who gave us the evidence, said that he thought it was too high to be an effective zero. I can assure your Lordships that you can never get to an actual zero because there is alcohol in all sorts of things like mouthwash, toothpaste and so on—in fact it is amazing how alcohol comes into everyday use, which one does not appreciate.

I have deliberately ended on a personal note because I wanted the House to be clear that I reported, I hope faithfully, the committee's view but on that one—and I emphasise that we thought it was the least important of the four-way matrix—I took a different view from the majority of the committee. Having said that, I very much honour the majority of the committee, and I put that view forward at Select Committee level. It goes without saying, therefore, that I and, I am sure, all speakers this evening, look forward with some anticipation to what the Government are going to say in response to this debate and in particular on this specific issue. I say no more at this stage. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (16th Report, HL Paper 82).—(Lord Geddes.)

6.45 p.m.

My Lords, as a member of Sub-Committee B, I congratulate, in conjunction with the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, our Clerk, Kate Ball, and our special adviser, Dr. Clayton, who gave us fantastic advice and guidance. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, summarise the report and then give his personal views. It is very much my pleasure to congratulate him on a very balanced chairmanship and on keeping his personal views private, although they did come out sometimes. It was an excellent piece of chairmanship and he did not try to influence the committee in any way. I congratulate him.

I, like him, found this a fascinating inquiry, with wide-ranging evidence. I might perhaps mention a little personal involvement as I had the experience some 25 years ago of someone running into me who had so much alcohol in him that he could not stand up; but he did not seem to get convicted or even get his licence taken away. That may colour one's thinking a little. However, I fully support the conclusion of the report.

My support starts from the basis that there is very solid scientific evidence, as noble Lords can see when they read the report. First of all, the methods and accuracy of measuring the levels of blood alcohol, either directly or by breathalyser equipment, are very well proven world wide.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, has just summarised, there is a relationship between the level of blood alcohol and the risk of involvement in an accident. I think the link is already well proven and I shall come to that later. I do not think it is subject to debate. Looking at the statistics—and I am sure many speakers will be quoting them tonight—my right honourable friend Dr. Strang, the Minister for Transport, quoted the figure of 90,000 drink-driving convictions in a year for being over the limit, and 50 per cent. of them for being virtually twice over the limit: that is 45,000 or so.

As the committee has stated in its report, there are two main types of offender: the younger age group of 20–24 and the high-risk offenders. The Minister went on to remind us that 540 people were killed in drink-related accidents. We can argue whether drink caused the accident or whether they just happened to be drunk in charge of a car when somebody ran into them—somebody who was cold sober—but we can go on arguing about that for ever. Drink played a part, and I think everybody would accept that.

It is difficult to deny that drink-related driving offences are a serious problem. It says something for the road safety work done in this country over the years that our record here is rather better than many other EU countries. Perhaps we should be a little proud of what has been done, but it does not mean to say that we cannot do a little better. That is what all this report is about.

I want to concentrate this evening on two matters: the high-risk offenders and the alcohol limit itself. On high-risk offenders, as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, said, 90,000 people are convicted each year of drink-related driving offences. I was interested in the evidence given by Dr. Major of the DVLA in Swansea about what happens to high-risk offenders who want their licences back. I refer to the bottom of page 48 of the report. Of the 90,000 drivers who lost their licences, over 29,000 applied to have their licences reinstated while 976 were refused their application. I calculate that that represents 4 per cent. In Dr. Major's evidence, summarised at paragraph 44 of our report, she said that the DVLA, when considering applications for the restoration of licences, needs to have a
"very robust level of diagnosis",
which will stand up to examination in court. That means that applicants can challenge the DVLA if they think that they have had their application for the restoration of their licence rejected unfairly. Dr. Major said:
"We are fairly sure that we are missing a lot of people".
I felt sorry for Dr. Major, who was obviously trying hard with a couple of hands tied behind her back, as it were.

Two things struck me when comparing Dr. Major's evidence with that of Mr. Hans Laurell from Sweden and that of Dr. Wolf Nickel from Germany. First, in Sweden, serious drink-drive offenders who are sent to gaol can serve their custodial sentence at home, provided they have a telephone with a machine that is capable of recording by smell whether they have been drinking. Those convicted must not drink at home. Effectively, they are off the drink, but they are not costing the state a lot of money by being kept in gaol. Offenders can be checked at any time to ensure that they are not drinking at home. That seems a sensible and comparatively cheap way of punishing people.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, explained the medical and psychological assessments which offenders have to undergo in Germany. On my calculation, keeping it simple, 30 per cent. of applicants in Germany failed to get their licences back. That compares with 4 per cent. in this country. I support the committee's recommendation and I hope that the Government will seriously consider the procedures followed in Sweden and Germany because there seems to be a lot that we can learn from them.

I turn now to the question of the alcohol limit and whether it should be reduced from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams. I refer to the graph on page 34 and to the relationship between the risk of accident involvement and the alcohol content, to which the noble Lord referred. One line relates to older and heavier drinkers. Extrapolating the bottom line (alcohol content) to 150mg/100ml, one sees that even for the oldest and heaviest drinkers—the repeat offenders—the risk of accident involvement is five times that if they are not drinking. That seems significant. Whether or not the limit is reduced from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams is completely irrelevant to them because they will exceed the limit in any event. I repeat that I find the fact that they are five times more likely to have an accident to be significant.

The graph also shows the risk of accident involvement for young drivers and infrequent drinkers. Reducing the limit from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams would reduce their risk of accident involvement from six times what it would be if they did not drink to about 2.5 times. That is not as good as the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, would like, but it is a good deal better than nothing. If one adds to that the fact that young drivers are also inexperienced, there is a major argument to be made in favour of reducing the limit to 50 milligrams.

One can discuss the errors in the measurement, but I am not persuaded by the evidence from the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, which basically said that if the limit were reduced, it would threaten the jobs created directly or indirectly in the community and would have adverse consequences for government revenue from taxation on alcohol. People are being killed by drunken drivers and the fact that government revenue may be reduced or pubs may lose business is sad, but surely society as a whole can learn to do what many of us have been doing for many years. If one is going out for dinner, one person in the party will not drink alcohol. It is not difficult; that person could drink soft drinks.

If we are talking about targeting people, by all means let us target pop concerts and other such events, but let us also target Ascot, Henley and so on because people there drink just as much and, in my view, they should not be on the road. One person should not drink—

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for asking a question at this stage, but he seems to have forgotten that many single people in rural areas depend entirely on a car for their social arrangements. When making judgments, the noble Lord should take such people into account. Their social life and freedom of activity is an important part of the equation which I fear the noble Lord has left out.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. I hope that I have taken that point into account. Of course, the social life of those living on their own in the country and who have a car is important, but I believe that 30 per cent. of those who live in the countryside do not have access to cars. They will go to the pub on foot or on a bicycle, down a road which probably does not have a pavement. They have a right to protection from drunken drivers. After all, a car is a lethal weapon whereas a bicycle is not, on the whole. One has to strike a balance. I am sorry but my answer is that if somebody who lives in the country wants to get drunk, he will have to do it at home, or find somebody to drive him, or use public transport if there is any. What about the 30 per cent. who do not have cars? I am sorry, but a balance must be struck.

In conclusion, I support the content of the report. We are all in grave danger of concentrating on the alcohol limit to the exclusion of everything else. However, as the report says, there must be a package of measures, combining penalties, enforcement and education. Together, they will send out the right signals that the Government are serious about the problems of drink-driving which kills 540 people per year. If those people had been killed as a result of a rail or air crash, there would be a major public inquiry. But if those people are killed by drunken drivers, on the whole, nobody cares. That is desperately sad. I fully support the report and I look forward to hearing the response of my noble friend the Minister.

6.56 p.m.

My Lords, I have read the report with great interest and I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, with great interest, although I do not entirely agree with him about the countryside. He said that 30 per cent. of people living in the countryside do not have cars. I do not know any such people. Frankly, in my part of the world, everybody has a car or access to one. It would be very difficult to find anyone without access to a car. I am talking purely for myself here because the official spokesman for the Liberal Democrats is my noble friend Lord Methuen and I should like to concentrate on the countryside and on a part that I know well, the County of Angus in the east of Scotland.

We have come an awfully long way in 50 years with regard to drink-driving and our general attitude to alcohol. Fifty years ago, I was the chairman of the annual Kirriemuir and District Agricultural Association dinner. It was a very jolly affair, and we had a form of drink-driving control which was absolutely ideal. Our admirable local sergeant, Sergeant Kippen, knew all the difficult families and understood their problems. At about 12.30 a.m., he would come into the room, and stand by the piano. He might even have a dram and, as the happy farmers trotted out, he would say, "Good night, Willie. If I was you, Tom, I would take a taxi". That form of control certainly worked, but I do not say that it can be applied throughout the country. However, it is most important that we consider what is happening in the countryside.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, was being a trifle sexist when he said that when a couple go out, one of them should not drink alcohol. There is an appalling sexist arrangement in our part of the world. It seems to work like this: the husband drives to the dinner and the wife drives home. That appears most unfair. It is ridiculous that in that context he or she cannot have two glasses of wine.

The whole report indicates that the problem lies with two groups of people: the young, who cause the majority of accidents, and the drunks. That is certainly so in my part of the world. The number of difficulties and accidents caused by the ordinary citizen is absolutely nil with the exception of two or three drunks whom I know. But the young, with or without drink, are constantly crashing cars. It is absolutely right that the report should highlight the fact that they are the people who must be dealt with.

The campaign has been enormously successful in reducing the number of accidents and has saved many lives. It has produced a new attitude in a good number of people. I believe the report to be excellent. I shall come to the point of disagreement in a moment.

I noted one or two extremely interesting matters in the report. On page 11 it is reported that the British Medical Association suggest that,
"because alcohol impairs driving functions, it is safe to assume that any accident-involved driver with an illegal BAC contributed to the cause of that accident".
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, may or may not remember that some years ago a judge was proceeding home from his club. He stopped at a red light quite legally but a sober idiot ran into the back of him. That judge was breathalysed and lost his licence. As a result, his career was gravely damaged. It is not always the driver with alcohol in his blood who is involved in accidents; often such people do not cause accidents.

Further, the British Medical Association stated that there was,
"considerable evidence that people who have been drinking lose certain social inhibitions resulting in, for example, the drinking driver being more likely to speed".
The opposite is more likely to be true of mature people who live in the country. If people have been drinking moderately, they are inclined to take care. The expression, "No more, I'm driving", is very common all over the country.

The report also highlights on page 21 the two main groups of people who cause the most damage. Enough has been said about that. The answer appears to be the imposition of stringent penalties. If a man or woman is to lose his or her licence, he or she will take care. If these individuals are liable to be caught because there are checks in places—I agree that they should be targeted, not random tests—more and more people will take care that they remain within a reasonable, safe limit.

I absolutely agree with the conclusions of the report, save for the last sentence which states,
"On balance, therefore, the Committee considers that the permitted BAC level for drivers … should be reduced".
I believe that on balance that conclusion is wrong and that an intensification of the efforts that are already being made and have been proven to be right, particularly in relation to the young and the habitual drunk, is the way forward.

7.4 p.m.

My Lords, when our very able chairman suggested that we examine the new draft directive on drink driving legislation, I was less than enthusiastic. The arguments are well known. Convictions for drink driving have long since ceased to be a subject to boast about, as at one stage they probably were. As the inquiry progressed under the skilful and tolerant direction of the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, it became increasingly interesting, to the point where members of the committee found themselves in fundamental disagreement. I find myself in a minority, together with the chairman and a number of colleagues, on the recommendations of the report.

With some thought, and at risk of pressing on the borders of good taste, I should like to make my position quite clear and declare a personal interest. Some years ago I was, with a close friend, involved in a particularly gruesome road accident in which both our wives were killed. It was caused by bad driving and had no relationship to alcohol whatsoever. I make that point, and quickly leave it, because I do not want my inability to accept the main findings of the report to give anyone the impression that I take issues involving road safety lightly.

There is no doubt that the legislation relating to seatbelts and drink and driving introduced in the mid-1960s has saved many tens of thousands of lives. Our drink and drive laws are among the most effectively enforced in Europe. In turn, that has provided us with one of the best, if not the best, records of accident prevention in this field in Europe. We are however faced with a considerable decline in the rate of accident reduction, and that is what triggers the argument underlying this particular report. That has been used to support the case for a further reduction in permitted alcohol levels. I believe that that view is a profound mistake with very serious implications.

As the inquiry progressed—I do not have the faintest interest in the welfare of brewers or anyone else on this issue—two key statistics began to dominate the entire debate. Fourteen per cent. of all road accidents involve alcohol. Of that 14 per cent., about 5 per cent. involve the high risk offenders to whom reference has already been made. Broadly speaking, they are drivers with a very serious drink problem and a record of repeated offences. Put another way, about 10 per cent. of accidents are caused by people who have had too much to drink. There is no argument about that. Five per cent. of accidents are caused by people who have an abnormally serious drink problem and should not be allowed anywhere near a motor vehicle until that is dealt with one way or another. But 85 per cent. of accidents have no connection with alcohol whatsoever. I do not argue that the 15 per cent. are unimportant. Having been there and done that, they are very important. However, 85 per cent. of the accidents are not subject to this report. Most of the traffic safety publicity is not connected with the 85 per cent. Common sense suggests that we are beginning to get our priorities seriously wrong, if we have not already done so.

The Police Drivers Handbook produced by the National Police Driving Schools Conference contains some very interesting statistics. The vast majority of road accidents fall under three headings. About one-third of all accidents are rear-end shunts, which was exactly what happened in my particular case. A vehicle crashes into the back of another. A quarter of all accidents are caused by one vehicle driving across another vehicle's priority. Around one-sixth of all accidents involve a loss of directional control. That is a concentration of accidents which one would not expect to find if the root cause in all of them was alcohol. The incidence would be more random.

Who are the drivers at risk? Even after taking account of age, sex, annual mileage and driving experience, some drivers are consistently more at risk than others. The police handbook states:
"If you have had an accident in one three-year period you are twice as likely to have another accident in the next three years. If you have had an accident for which you could be held at least partly responsible, you are four times more likely to have a similar accident in the next year. Drivers also tend to repeat the types of accident they have".
I repeat that alcohol is involved in 14 per cent. of all road accidents and that should be controlled as much as possible. However, it is beyond argument that a high proportion of the other 86 per cent. have a single cause; that is, plainly and simply, bad driving. I believe that over the years we have focused on drinking and driving to the detriment of the far larger problem. I refer to the drivers one sees every day whose bad driving habits make them every bit as dangerous as the idiot with three or four pints under his belt.

The introduction of seat belts produced major benefits in terms of road safety. The drink-driving legislation has reformed social attitudes to a point where I suspect that the reason for the slow-down in the reduction is that we have arrived at a plateau beyond which it is unlikely we will make serious progress and where a further reduction in the limits would at best yield little improvement and at worst prove counter-productive.

I believe that it is time for another new initiative in the field of road safety; a complete re-examination of the problems of bad driving and what can be done about that. I believe that the existing driving test is completely inadequate for today's speeds and traffic volumes. A number of bodies provide advanced driving instruction with tests far more challenging than the MoT test. The Institute of Advanced Motoring, of which I am a member—it does not agree with my argument—provides a test which takes almost an hour and involves everything from driving on motorways to driving in town centres, council estates and on narrow country lanes. Similar tuition is offered by other organisations. I see no reason why anyone found guilty of a serious driving offence, for example, should not, at his or her expense, be required to undertake a specific programme of tuition followed by a far more demanding test than that currently required. Driving around the back streets at 20 miles per hour is not a very serious test. My car has the potential to travel at 150 miles an hour. I travel at around 70, sometimes a little more, and I am passed by vehicles as though I were going backwards. That is not an unusual experience for anyone who drives on motorways. A great deal can be done in the enforcement of better driving standards, but there is not time to deal with that now.

My experience as a member of the committee examining the matter leads me to believe that it is high time to face the fact that 85 per cent. of road accidents require a greater degree of attention than is currently the case. I repeat that I do not in any way decry the importance of drinking and driving as a source of road accidents, which in turn is a source of great misery to the many people involved. However, we must face the need for the department and Ministers to look at the matter again. The two previous initiatives yielded good results, but I do not believe that we can just sit back, concentrate on the 14 per cent. and virtually ignore the 86 per cent.

7.14 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Geddes for his summary of the report and his introduction of the problems faced by the committee. Furthermore, I thank all noble Lords and others who approach the task so assiduously. It is opportune that the report is published and that the debate is taking place tonight on the eve of the close of the consultation period on the document of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Government's response remains to be seen. I hope that we shall not wait too long for that response.

The vast majority of motor vehicle drivers happily conform with the 1967 laws introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, on alcohol limits for drivers. It is admitted that the level then set of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood was perhaps more of a political decision on what the motoring public would accept. It was also a pragmatic decision which, to the noble Baroness's credit, has stood the test of time extraordinarily well. Most people stick within those limits.

I accept that we cannot be complacent, particularly as the evidence suggests that the reduction in the number of road deaths caused by alcohol has flattened out. I do not believe that that reduction is consistent with the efforts that have been made, but perhaps it emphasises that further and greater efforts should be made to make an impact.

The difficulty which the DETR and your Lordships' committee share is that of conflicting evidence—or the lack of evidence—in comparison with other countries where driving attitudes, conditions and enforcement are widely different. I suggest that they are so different that comparisons will be almost meaningless. My noble friend Lord Geddes referred to that matter, albeit in a different context.

The so-called statistical evidence is of mixed quality and I am somewhat sceptical about it. It is so mixed that a number of assumptions have had to be made in the report and in the consultation document. At page 19, paragraph 35 states:
"In counties like the UK, which have a legal limit set at 80 milligrams, there is a scarcity of information about accidents involving drivers with significant but lower alcohol levels, except in the case of fatalities".
Without reliable evidence and information, it was not reasonable to make some of the decisions which were made.

I share the minority view of the Select Committee, expressed as point 6 of its opinion, and note that it reached that conclusion on balance. It is worth repeating that the committee, in considering the draft report, was also not unanimous in its decision. Of course, I make no quarrel about that. However, it is worth making the point which the DETR document suggests at paragraph 15, when it states:
"A package of measures dealing with enforcement, the system of offences and penalties and education, publicity and information to ensure that the right groups are targeted is the right way forward".
Those three points are contained in the sub-committee's general conclusions at paragraph 115, in which it concludes that the four-way matrix of counter-measures should be adopted, the fourth measure being the alcohol blood limit to which I have already alluded.

I do not wish to be frivolous when I say that at the end of last month, the Parliamentary Beer Club hosted a meeting. I hasten to assure your Lordships that that meeting was concerned only with drink-drive issues. One of a number of speakers was Mr. Peter Joslin, who is the chief constable of Warwickshire and formerly chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' road safety committee. I believe that not only is he the longest serving chief constable in England but he is also the longest serving police officer, with considerable experience.

In his remarks, Mr. Joslin suggested that lowering the alcohol-blood level to 50 milligrams might be seen as a quick fix—almost the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh—engaging more of the scarce police resources without greatly reducing the accident death rate. He questioned the effect on motorist/police relations and added that there may well be a detrimental effect on the social life of rural communities. Incidentally, I was sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, dismissed that point somewhat shortly. I believe that he did less than credit to those living in rural communities.

Mr. Joslin wondered also whether we are nearing a point of no return except in relation to the two groups which have already been identified: the young male driver and the high risk offender, the hard core driver.

Another speaker at that meeting was Dr. Herb Simpson. He is the president and chief executive officer of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Ottawa. He has some 20 years' experience of research into road accidents, deaths and injuries related to alcohol. He broadly supported Mr. Joslin's comments. He suggested that his research led him to believe that it was the hard core who caused the most damage. In support, he said that it was the 1 per cent. of night drivers who were drink drivers who caused 65 per cent. of accidents. He expressed the matter in another way by saying that 80 to 90 per cent. of drink drivers equate to about 10 per cent. only of drivers as a whole.

From what I have heard and read over quite a long time, I have reached the conclusion that lowering the permitted level of alcohol from the present 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood would achieve very little improvement at some considerable cost—not in monetary terms; perhaps I should say usage—of limited resources, with some potential loss of respect for the law and its enforcement agencies.

I reject the sub-committee's opinion 15,
"that road policing should be made a core policing priority in Great Britain",
because I believe that, most policing is intelligence-led and it is best left to chief constables to determine their local priorities as and when a particular situation demands.

I believe also that, were that prioritisation to be adopted, ultimately it would lead to a demand for a separate road or traffic police force. That would be quite disastrous. I tend towards the acceptance, in broad terms, of the three points of the sub-committee's four-point matrix, much in line with the Government's suggested solution set out in the consultation document to which I have referred.

7.24 p.m.

My Lords, as a member of the Select Committee on this subject, I fully endorse the conclusions and recommendations in the committee's report. I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, for being such a fair chairman. It is only now that I fully realise that he did not foist on us his view that the level should be below 50. He was very fair. I am also extremely grateful to our Clerk, Kate Ball, and our special adviser, who I note are listening intently to the debate.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that we should put the score card right inasmuch as of the nine people on the Select Committee, seven were in favour of reducing the limit from 80 to 50. Only two dissented; namely, the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, who has already spoken, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford.

There are two points which I wish to make. First, what is proposed is a comprehensive package of enforcement, with appropriate penalties—a point which has been picked up by noble Lords—for first-time offenders, different penalties for repeat offenders, with yet different penalties for reckless offenders; that is, those well in excess of any limit which may be laid down.

The second point is in relation to a reduction in the permitted level of alcohol in the bloodstream from 80 to 50mg/100mls. That is part of the package. It is the part which will be picked up by the media and understood best by everybody. We would rather that people do not offend so that the police do not have to enforce those penalties. It is the promotional and psychological part of the package. It underlines the legend, none for the road, because we should not drink and drive.

The BMA advises that drivers with between 80 and 50mg of alcohol in their blood are two-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in an accident. Let us compare that statistic with a comment from the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, which I notice was also present at the parliamentary beer club. It commented that the risk between 50 and 80 is very small. Why should that be? Setting aside the vested interests of the brewers, why should the BMA bring that to our attention?

With between 50 and 80mg most people do not feel drunk. They are not remotely staggering drunk. They are often perfectly lucid. The reason is simple. If, as is often the case, something unexpected, difficult or dangerous happens on the road in front of him, the driver with between 50 and 80mg has his driving ability seriously impaired. There will be that vital fraction of a second—and we are talking about only a nanosecond, not a full second—of delayed reaction, by which time it will be too late and the accident, sometimes fatal for both guilty and innocent alike, occurs. The driver with drink in his blood may not have been the primary cause of the accident but his impairment ensures that the accident happens. That is the important point which we gathered from the expert evidence.

Exposure to that evidence and accompanying graphs has certainly changed my personal habits, and I have no difficulty in admitting that, although I do live in a rural area. Since I received that knowledge, I have noticed that the custom and practice in rural areas, especially among the young, have changed and are changing. Noble Lords would see for themselves if they observed the situation. They find a driver who will not be drinking at all or they collectively pay for hired transport in order to use their favourite watering hole. It is, as I observe—and perhaps my rural village is the exception to the rule—the more elderly and the more selfish who are reluctant to change their habits of a lifetime. I recommend the report of the Select Committee to the House.

7.30 p.m.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has one of the best drink and drive accident records in Europe. While the actual number of deaths on the road may have stabilised, vehicle usage continues to increase, so that the number of deaths per vehicle miles travelled continues to fall. Per 10,000 vehicles, only Norway and Sweden have very marginally better records but, by population, we are top of the league. They have BAC levels of 20 and 50 to our 80, with virtually the same record. However, France and Belgium, with a limit of 50, have nearly the highest rate of road deaths. When it comes to deaths to distance travelled, the UK is the safest, followed by Finland and the Netherlands, both with a 50 milligram limit. Only then comes Sweden with its 20 BAC limit.

BAC is clearly not the determining factor and has little effect on the actual level of deaths. The public perception is that other countries are safer, and that alcohol accounts for most accidents. We should not allow misinformed sentiment to outweigh the facts. Strangely, the risk of being killed on the roads is only one in 16,000. That compares with one in 200 for those smoking 10 cigarettes a day. If the Government are so keen to protect people from themselves, they should heed that figure and ban smoking. That would save 80 people for every one saved by the BAC limit being reduced to 50 milligrams.

Nevertheless, the introduction of BAC levels in 1967 has been an unqualified success in changing the public perception of driving. No one condones drunk driving, and the efforts to reduce it have full public support. The old slogan, "One for the road", is no longer even considered a joke. The attitude to driving with drink and the enforcement and acceptance of the legal requirements are the key to safety on the roads. Public acceptance is crucial.

Unlike someone caught for speeding who is considered unlucky, the drink driver carries a social stigma and is condemned. This positive respect for the law has resulted in reducing drink-related deaths from 1,650 in 1969 to 540 in 1996. To reduce the BAC limit to 50 milligrams would put a strain on that support, as some of those caught would know that their judgment was not impaired and would feel aggrieved and unjustly treated. Public respect would be jeopardised. It was for that reason that the US Congress decided in 1992 not to reduce the limit below 80 milligrams.

No improvement could be guaranteed by a reduction to 50 milligrams in the UK, and there is a real possibility that the change could be for the worst. In other countries, the lowering of the BAC limit to 50 had small effect on accidents. There is no evidence to show that a reduction here, with our good record, would have any effect at all. It is suggested that the 12-month period of disqualification should be the same for a new BAC limit of 50. That would be penal and counterproductive, inviting public antipathy. If the 50 limit were to be imposed, the penalty should not be severe unless accompanied by bad driving. To be caught at all would be a severe shock to most people, who would take greater care in future. Once the 50 limit comes in, the one-pint man may well find himself over the top; and this is a new ball game. It will cause resentment, and lose the support of the public. Many a moderate drinker will say that, having had one glass of beer and being over the limit, he has little to lose by having another, on the basis that he might as well be caught for a sheep as a lamb.

The report suggests that the risk of an accident is doubled for someone with an over-50 BAC. If that is true, and it may not be, it is double such a small base figure as to make it statistically insignificant. French and Belgian experience was that reduction from 80 to 50 milligrams reduced fatal casualties by 10 per cent., but, at the same time, indications suggested that the lower limit had not in fact resulted in either lower BACs for drivers or a reduction in alcohol-related accidents. So it is probable that the reductions were for other causes.

As the number of drink-drive deaths becomes smaller, so the rate of improvement will inevitably reduce. Thus the review of the milligram limit should be taken in the light of reinforcing continuing success. One chief constable has suggested that lowering the limit, particularly with a high penalty, would increase the number of hit-and-run cases. The high risk offender will disregard whatever limit may be imposed. It makes no difference to his attitude what happens at the lower end of the scale. He is dangerous to himself, and to others, and must suffer the penalty of the law with the support of the public. But it is unfair to penalise the moderate and careful drinker to punish the high-risk offender.

Those people who drink over the limit now are hardly likely to drink less when the limit is lower. The key is not to make more people guilty, but to enforce the law as it stands. Harrying the careful drinker will do no good. It will just antagonise the innocent and the careful who would otherwise support the 80 BAC limit. There seems to be a modern trend in government that, if someone blatantly disregards the law, everyone else must suffer. The withdrawal of pistols from perfectly innocent people was an example.

However the role of drink-driving should not be overstated. The Select Committee made it clear that only 14 per cent. of fatalities were drink related and that efforts should more effectively be put into reducing accidents for the 86 per cent.—this point has been made many times this evening—but that the reduction of the limit would reduce accidents by between 5 per cent. and 40 per cent. I fail to see how this can be when 86 per cent. of accidents are not drink related. Further, it is surely those well over the limit who cause most accidents. Therefore, it is the enforcement of the 80 milligram limit that needs addressing.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies said that a low limit inadequately enforced would be less likely to reduce casualties than the higher limit properly enforced, and that that is where the police effort should be targeted. The lower limit would strain police time, strain police relations with drivers, and clog up the courts. There are few enough police around now when one wants one, without tying them up with catching everyone who has had a pint of beer.

The Swedish National Road Administration stated that, with regard to accidents, alcohol is still by far the worst problem. Does this really accord with the fact that 86 per cent. are not alcohol related, or is it because the limit is so low that almost anyone in Sweden is over it? There, 100 milligrams represents gross drunk driving, a level that is only just above our allowable limit. To my mind, Belgium has a much more realistic approach with short suspensions for the less serious cases. Further, where one party in an accident is near or over the limit, it is assumed that he is to blame—and he may be. However, as one noble Lord said, that assumption may well not be correct on a number of occasions.

There are many causes of accidents. The influence of drugs comes to mind immediately, as do mobile telephones, tinkering with the wireless; and, of course, tiredness notoriously kills. The moderate drinker should not have to pay the penalty for them. Considering the number of people who appear to be on drugs, perhaps that is the direction that should be pursued with drug testing, as much as drink.

Subsidiarity should apply in these matters, and should remain so as much depends on drinking habits. Always leaving apart the heavy drinkers, every country has different styles, with different results. For example, in Finland with the low limit, the form used to be to drive to the licensed outlet, buy a bottle of whisky and drink it in one. On recovering, they would drive home and wait for their next month's ration. Luckily, without rationing, that is not what we do or need to do as a nation. Once the BAC limit became 50, who knows what some people would resort to. Certainly the general effect on social life would be far reaching and a great many law abiding citizens, who were sensible drinkers, would find themselves criminalised. A couple of drinks in the day, at the office before the train home, and the drive from the station would become criminal.

In the country, as opposed to the towns, people go out for dinner or a drink, and most are meticulous in restricting their intake of alcohol to ensure that they can drive back home under the limit of 80 milligrams. It is all very well for those who live in towns to wish for a lower limit, but countrymen may well drive for 20 miles when going out to dinner, or when going to a pub for a drink. However careful they may be, other than having nothing to drink at all, they will be over the new limit. I believe there would be a public backlash, particularly in the country, if the lower limit were introduced. Meanwhile, country pubs, already under strain, would be hard hit and many would close.

As regards roadside testing, this occurs already. I see no reason why roadside testing should not be undertaken from time to time. It would always alert drivers to the possibility of being stopped for no reason, particularly at night at times when people are returning from parties. But, again, to penalise people for having just a couple of drinks will antagonise everyone and achieve little to reduce the 14 per cent. of drink related offences. Half the 90,000 people convicted annually had a BAC of over 159mg/ml. That is way above the present 80, let alone the proposed 50. If half were over 150, surely an even greater proportion would have been over 100—still clear of the 80.

In Germany there are various assessment schemes which have to be taken by an HRO before he regains his licence. I think these may be worth considering. I like the idea of the ignition interlock device. Often drivers with no intention of driving sleep in their cars, even in a car park and are then prosecuted for being drunk in charge. The BAIID would help them to avoid that fate. It is a good idea to test HROs for drink dependency before the reissue of their licences, perhaps with just six hours' warning.

As with all legislation, it really must be acceptable to the public. Where a law starts to become harassment—as a 50 limit would be—it must be expected that it will be disregarded as a risk that people will take, just as they do with speed limits. That does nothing for the law. It is only reasonable legislation that will earn respect and compliance by the public. The US experience has shown that a low limit inadequately enforced is less effective in reducing casualties than a higher limit properly enforced. The committee acknowledges that lowering the limit would have no effect on those driving with significantly higher BACs. The committee accepts that reducing the limit would have only a marginal effect on the number of road accidents. Its conclusion to recommend the reduction was taken only on balance and by no means conclusively.

7.41 p.m.

My Lords, my main purpose in joining the debate on this important issue, despite not being a member of the Select Committee, is to present the views of my professional organisation, the British Medical Association. In fact the BMA gave both written and oral evidence through Professor Vivienne Nathanson, who is Head of Science, Ethics and Health Policy at the BMA. The evidence is published in full in the report. Most of the recommendations of the Select Committee are compatible with BMA policy on the issue, and of course I therefore congratulate the committee on its good judgment.

The lowering of the limit to 50mg/100ml makes sense in its own right, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, has said, and not merely because it will go with the grain of changes in the law in other European Union countries, or conform with Mr. Kinnock's revived draft directive—even though the committee believes in subsidiarity. On reading the report I was interested to note evidence of the split in opinion—which has been described so fully by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh—as regards the wisdom of the reduction to 50mg. The amendment of the noble Lords, Lord Marsh and Lord Howell of Guildford, stated that,
"any gain would in our opinion only be secured at a disproportionate cost in terms of diversion of police resources".
The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, developed that theme more fully in his speech. However, that opinion was not shared by a clear majority of the committee.

As my noble friend has pointed out, the figure was seven members out of 10, the chairman abstaining. In fact there is a strong body of opinion in the country which goes further and believes that a zero limit would be appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, has hinted perhaps that he is one of those and that that is the proper way to give a message of "none for the road". As the noble Lord said, this would mean adopting the Swedish level of 20—perhaps even 10 now—which is virtually a zero limit but which allows for those low and harmless alcohol levels which are caused by diabetes and the products that he mentioned such as mouthwashes and gargles which contain alcohol.

The committee and the British Medical Association felt that this restriction down to 20 or 10—effectively zero—would move ahead of public opinion to such an extent that it may be counterproductive. The figure of 50mg allows "one for the road" provided that is strictly one, for example a half pint of beer, a glass of wine or one nip of spirits.

Other noble Lords have mentioned my next point. At the risk of being repetitive, 50mg is the level above which the accident rate starts to rise steeply, particularly among younger people who are not so aware of the impairment of their judgment caused by drinking alcohol. My noble friend described that process well. They have not developed the compensatory caution which many of us of more advanced age acquire. I remember as a student riding a new (second-hand) motor bike and feeling enormously exhilarated by its acceleration. I did not feel in the least bit drunk after a pint of beer. Those were the days before crash helmets and therefore I am lucky to have come through that phase unscathed.

But to concentrate on blood alcohol levels alone as a means of reducing road accidents would be to misreport the recommendations of the committee, as many speakers have shown. The report sees the lowering of the BAC as only part—and not the most important part—of a package of measures. I refer to the four-way matrix described by the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, and others. They feel that penalties and enforcement are much the most important sanctions. That, again, is largely in accord with BMA policy which states that,
"factors such as enforcement, visibility of policing, cultural attitudes to alcohol itself and to drink driving, the impact of public education campaigns, the availability of other methods of transportation and patterns of drinking, will all contribute to the level of drink driving within a country in addition to the legal BAC".
The committee has been cautious not to be too Draconian in its recommendations and not to be over-influenced by the European aspects of the proposed lowering of the BAC. It feels that subsidiarity should apply and that legislation should proceed at a rate which is appropriate for each country, as customs and behaviour differ, and should not be over-influenced, for example, by the problems of crossing borders into countries with different laws. However, I feel that is quite an important problem. I differ from the committee here and suggest that this is a public health concern which affects all EU countries. It is proper for Mr. Kinnock to seek a minimum European Union-wide standard of legislation through the draft directive.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but is he aware that in the United States and Australia every state has the right to make its own drink driving laws? Why should this not apply in Europe too?

My Lords, I am suggesting that that makes for muddle and confusion if one passes through a border, particularly in a federal country such as the United States or Australia. Perhaps it is slightly easier in Europe to realise when one crosses a frontier. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that there should be a common upper limit.

The committee also came down against random testing as being too intrusive and not cost-effective. As many noble Lords have said, the committee preferred a tightening of enforcement through existing methods of "due cause" testing. I suggest that random testing need not be too costly. It could probably pay for itself through the increased number of fines that would be levied. The occasional but unpredictable possibility of a roadside check would have a strong deterrent effect. I am sure all noble Lords will have noticed that where speed cameras are installed, traffic is compliant with speed limits even though the cameras function only for part of the time.

I would also point out that the Australian Capital Territory findings, which are mentioned in the BMA's written evidence, showed that, when coupled with a reduction in the legal blood alcohol limit from 80 to 50mg/100m1, random breath tests of drivers not only showed a 90 per cent. reduction in BAC levels between 50 and 80mg but also a fall of 41 per cent. for drivers with levels of over 150mg—the drivers who are likely to have the most serious accidents and probably comprise most of those HROs we have been hearing about.

In my opinion the expanded use of "targeted enforcement" or "evidential roadside testing" by the police, which is recommended in the report, would not have such a deterrent effect as random testing. To target a driver requires the police to notice the behaviour of a particular driver which raises their suspicion or contravenes some traffic regulation, whereas the constant possibility of random testing will have an effect on all drivers, even those who can in normal circumstances compensate for quite high blood alcohol levels and appear to be driving quite normally but who may become involved in a serious accident because of their impaired reaction time.

With regard to the high risk offenders, I hope that my noble friend will be able to make a comment on the policy that the report mentions in Sweden and Germany about periodic supervision and testing and possibly encouragement to have some help with the alcohol problem that those countries have.

I apologise to committee members if I have sounded a little critical. The report is full of information, clearly and incisively expressed, for which I thank all members of the committee, particularly its very able chairman and its clerk and adviser, as well as those who gave evidence.

It could be that I have been a little selective in my reading of the evidence. But I do not think so. If I had been a member of the committee I might have understood their cautious approach a little better. But I am delighted that they grasped the nettle of reducing the legal limit from 80 to 50mg. I fully endorse their emphasis on the whole package of measures needed to reduce drink driving. I am just a little sorry that they did not grasp the nettle of random testing or support the draft EU directive which would harmonise drink-driving limits at 50mg or less right across the European Union.

My Lords, parts of this debate have reminded me that at school I was known as "Back-to-basics-Bootle". I would remind the House that this inquiry was about a draft directive which purely and simply concerned reducing the permitted blood alcohol level for drivers from 80mg to 50mg across the EU. It was not about reducing accidents generally. One cannot therefore criticise the report on that basis.

That said, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom has made excellent progress since the 1960s in encouraging major changes in public behaviour in respect of drinking and driving. Those are not my words, nor those of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie—although they might have been if I paraphrased something that he said earlier—but those of Mr. David Rogers from RoSPA. They are words with which anyone on either side of the argument can agree. I say "argument" deliberately because there is no doubt that this is a contentious subject. Indeed, both the speeches we have heard today and the rumours we hear from time to time about the views of various Ministers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions support that hypothesis.

Before the committee, so impartially chaired by my noble friend Lord Geddes, launched itself into this subject, my view was that drinking and driving as a problem was slowly reducing and there was no need for additional measures. It was but a short time into the inquiry that I found, to my surprise, the ground shifting slowly but decisively under my feet. I discovered that about 14 per cent. of all accidents were alcohol-related. At least one Member of the committee—and indeed we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Marsh—felt that it was more important to do something about the other 86 per cent. The problem there, of course, is what? Recommendation 15 is the only one which covers this. But, as I said just now, we were not considering all accidents; we were looking at blood alcohol levels.

We already know that in other jurisdictions where the blood alcohol limit has been reduced there has been a significant reduction in the number of alcohol-related accidents. The Queensland Study has already been mentioned in that connection. The report shows, however, that closer to home, in France, for example, there has been a reduction due to lowering the limit from 80mg to 50mg aided by increased enforcement. In Belgium, on the other hand, it seems there has been little, if any, reduction, due, as I think we all felt, to the very low level of penalties. Taking people off the road for three hours and then sending them on their way is not something we would for a moment think of for this country. In West Germany the problem has diminished gradually since 1985 while in the former East Germany, in spite of raising the permitted level from zero to 80mg when the two countries amalgamated, the problem increased significantly. That was because of mammothly increased enforcement, we were told by Dr. Wolf Nickel, so there was a hidden problem there.

That is not the problem in the United Kingdom. Over the past five or so years the death rate has plateaued out, as we have heard, at about 540 a year. That is in spite of a gentle decrease in the number of drivers found over the limit. Although not strictly part of the evidence to our inquiry, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will, I am sure, remember answering a Starred Question from my noble friend Lord Geddes on 21st January this year. At col. 1505 she said that
"in December 1993 105,800 motorists were breathalysed [in England and Wales] and 8,500 were positive or refused to provide a sample".
That is 8 per cent.
"In 1994 the figures were 129,100 and 8,700"
respectively, or 7.7 per cent. More tests were conducted in the same month in 1995 and 6.29 per cent were found in this category. The figures for 1996 were 6.57 per cent. We still have not heard the figures for 1997. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to enlighten us this evening.

Putting these pieces of information together, the plateau and the figures I have just referred to show that something, to say the least, is wrong. Before I am interrupted I should say that it is my feeling—I put it no higher than that—that education is affecting the number who drink and drive but that it is not having any effect on the level of alcohol-derived accidents. What would? Mr. Manning of the Association of Chief Police Officers believed on page 15 of the report that the lowering of the limit would result in 12 to 13 per cent. fewer accidents on the roads. That was tellingly backed up by two further pieces of evidence. On page 34 of the report there is a graph, which has been referred to several times this evening, of risk and blood alcohol levels. That shows that for all drivers the risk of accidents starts to increase dramatically over a limit of 65mg and for the young and inexperienced driver at even lower levels. I, for one, had not appreciated that. That was drummed into me by Professor Nathanson on page 25 who, in answer to question 99, stated,
"you can say that the curve showing the increased risk is a very low, gradual incline until the 50 mg point at which it starts to rise extremely rapidly and moves into an even sharper curve above 90 mg, but there certainly seems to be a significant change at around the 50 mg/100ml level".
A reduction to 65mg is not on offer, either from the Commission or from the Government's White Paper, so a reduction to 50mg is good enough for me. Incidentally, Professor Nathanson also answered a point that was made by my noble friend Lord Gisborough. The new law, if any, must be acceptable to the public. We find the professor's evidence on page 28 of the report. We know that the public support a reduction in the level of blood alcohol concentration. When we first started being vocal about this subject nearly two years ago, there was much media interest. From every television programme, radio phone-in or correspondence column of national newspapers the only criticism we received from the public was to ask why we did not go for a limit lower than 50 milligrams.

In this morning's post I received a brief from the Automobile Association. Perhaps I may quote from a tiny part of it. It states:
"There is overwhelming support from motorists generally for reducing the limit—79 per cent are in favour".
But on its own, reducing blood alcohol limits will not do the job. The report brings that out clearly. Elsewhere we had evidence on police powers. We learnt that they were adequate but erratically used in the various police authorities up and down the country. We heard that roadside evidential breath-testing kits were almost available. However, legislation would need to be introduced before those kits could be used. They might save police time and resources at the police station itself. As my noble friend Lord Geddes, said, such tests could release police from having to drive suspects to police stations.

We heard a lot about high risk offenders, to which much reference has been made today. We came to the conclusion that only a basket of measures would suffice, and that basically the rigorous sanctions we already have at the 80mg level should be maintained at the 50mg level, with the exception of high risk offenders for whom the scheme should be more rigorous than it is. The level should not be set at 200mg but should be reduced to 150mg in line with the reduction in the legal limit; and that above that there should be an enhanced risk offender scheme using the German model.

I could not have gone along with any of those suggestions had I not been convinced to start with by the medical evidence. That is why I have laid so much weight on it in my speech. John Donne wrote all those years ago,
"Any man's death diminishes me".
Would not an avoidable alcohol-related motoring death have completely flattened him?

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may put one question to him. Does he agree that the claim that 14 per cent. of accidents are caused by alcohol is probably exaggerated? If a driver who is slightly over the limit is pulled up at traffic lights with his handbrake on, and a coach comes along with 50 passengers driven by a teetotaller who has had only four hours sleep the previous night and a collision occurs, and all 52 people involved are killed, that would be classified as 52 drink-related deaths. But demonstrably the accident was not caused in any way by alcohol.

My Lords, obviously that is true, but of course it is the exception which proves the rule.

8.2 p.m.

My Lords, this is an excellent report and I should like to congratulate the committee on their diligence on producing it at such an opportune time. It is opportune because drivers have become somewhat blasé and certain sections of the driving population are flouting current legislation. It is opportune also because attitudes towards drivers who consume alcohol have changed dramatically since Sections 1 and 2 of the Road Safety Act 1967 came into force.

However, I wonder whether your Lordships are aware of a couple of reports on drink driving attitudes in the United States, contained in recent editions of Auto Express. In an attempt to keep persistent offenders off the roads and out of gaol, a Cincinnati judge ordered Dennis Cayse to move house to be within walking distance of the liquor store. A drink-drive suspect, Robert Hobbs, who stood on his head to prove that he was not tipsy, impressed the Californian police so much that they let him go. We are different.

Before I proceed any further, I should declare that I am a former examiner of advanced motorists in Australia, that I am a civilian holder of the police Class I driving certificate, and that periodically I go on traffic patrol with the police in the knowledge that very senior police officers have given their approval.

I agree with the current system of stringent penalties for drink drivers and with the proposals to address the problems posed by high risk offenders and the new young drivers who exceed blood alcohol levels. Some people air their views that the BAC limit should not be lowered to 50 milligrams because it would result only in a saving of about 50 to 100 lives a year, according to my information, whereas concentrating on high risk offenders would save more lives. But, if the BAC level was 10 milligrams, then 250 lives per annum would be saved.

My Lords, this was information given to me by someone I consulted.

Those people also say that public opinion is against lowering the limit. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, the Automobile Association commissioned MORI to seek people's views on various matters. One of the findings is that 79 per cent. of motorists are in favour of reducing the limit. If lowering the limit results in saving only one life, then it should be lowered. The high risk offender will continue to drive and offend until caught whereas the responsible motorist will make use of public transport, taxis or friends to get home after drinking. The pub trade will not suffer. I am in full agreement with the committee's statement that any future measures should be introduced en bloc rather than singly over an extended period. People would feel far less aggrieved if all matters were addressed simultaneously.

The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association suggests that a 12-month period of disqualification for a BAC of between 51 milligrams and 80 milligrams is inappropriate because that level of alcohol concentration can only be regarded as a minor offence. I submit that that opinion is wrong. It has been recognised for many years that any alcohol adversely affects driving ability. The Canadian study of about 40 years ago bears this out. The BLRA has also produced graphs, one of which shows total fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres since 1967 and alcohol related fatalities since 1979. The two lines are converging, which to me indicates that the percentage of alcohol related fatalities compared with non-alcohol related fatalities is in fact increasing. So any and all measures to reduce death on the roads should be taken.

The AA poll further indicates that 60 per cent. of motorists support giving police full discretion to stop a vehicle, which they are entitled to do now, and to require the driver to give a breath test, which currently they can do only when reasonable suspicion exists.

I am delighted with the committee's opinion that road policing should be made a core policing priority but feel it necessary to disagree strongly with the conclusion of paragraph 88. I have yet to be on patrol with a police crew which has been specifically instructed to target drink drivers. Officers stop a vehicle for a specific reason. For example, it might be a defective light, speeding, driving erratically, or, occasionally, when drink driving is suspected. It is only when speaking with a driver that in general drink driving is investigated.

I give noble Lords one specific example. Just before Christmas I was with a crew. At four o'clock in the morning on a deserted motorway a vehicle was stopped. It was being driven apparently perfectly safely with its high intensity rear lights showing. The sole reason for stopping the vehicle was to have the high intensity rear lights extinguished. It transpired that the driver's level was double the legal limit.

We are all aware of the Christmas and summer campaigns against drink driving. But it is interesting to note that the number of drivers breathalysed during those well advertised periods barely exceeds those breathalysed at other periods. Incidentally, I understand that there is to be an EU-wide campaign against drink driving this year, lasting all of one day. But it has to be acknowledged that, following the 1967 Act, this country has one of the best records of road safety in the world, which underlines the effectiveness of police officers in enforcing all relevant legislation and motorists complying with it.

It might be worthwhile drawing attention to the fact that police officers do not deal solely with traffic offences. After all, the majority of criminals travel to and from the scene of their crimes by motor vehicle. Yet road policing in the Metropolitan Police District receives only 7.2 per cent. of police budget. Presumably, other forces devote similarly small amounts to their traffic departments.

It has been recommended that more research should be undertaken into the effect of drugs on driving. I hope that I am not being too simplistic nor trying to point out the obvious, but any testing should be over an extended period. There is always the possibility of a driver being adversely affected some weeks after an initial investigation has been undertaken—particularly after taking drugs such as LSD, where flashbacks are not uncommon weeks after ingestion of the drug.

I believe that most people have a rough idea of how much alcohol can be consumed before the BAC limit is reached. If those limits are to be changed, I hope that consideration will be given not only to providing approximate information regarding the amended equivalent units, but also to the fact that alcohol concentration reduces by one unit per hour. Any measures that reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the roads are to be encouraged. For that reason I look forward to the committee's recommendations being enacted as soon as possible.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, will be interested to learn that in our family we have a very sexist arrangement when we go out. I drive both ways: I do not drink.

8.11 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may first add to the tributes paid to our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes. It has been remarkable the way the noble Lord has suppressed his real feelings throughout the investigation. We have to pay tribute to him for being so immaculate in the way he has handled it.

I am a member of the majority of Sub-Committee B. I fully support the outcome of our deliberations, with one exception; namely, I feel that we are being over-sensitive on the subsidiarity issue. Recognising that an ever-increasing number of our fellow citizens will be driving cars and lorries long distances—I stress "long" distances—across the European Union, and that the number will probably double or treble in the next decade, we should be just as concerned for their safety on the Continent as when they are driving in the UK.

I believe, therefore, that not only the legal limit but also penalties should be viewed clearly as cross-border problems and should be harmonised. The other two issues of enforcement and publicity/education which we highlighted fall more naturally within national jurisdictions, so as best to reflect the different cultures. As we have heard, Neil Kinnock, the EU Transport Commissioner, recently suggested that the legal limit should be harmonised at the 50 mg level. That has been opposed. However, limits across the European Community have been moving naturally in that direction. Assuming that we in the UK adopt that lower level, then probably only Italy, Ireland and Luxembourg will retain the higher levels. I do not find that surprising in the case of Italy and Ireland; but for Luxembourg it seems rather odd.

We in the UK are rightly proud of the fact that our track record in reducing the number of casualties caused annually by drink driving is the best in Europe; but it is primarily due to the very stringent penalties that we impose. In the UK there is an automatic disqualification ban of 12 months for exceeding the limit. However, in Germany, a driving licence is revoked for only one month, or for three months if the offence is repeated. In Belgium, the penalty is suspension from driving for three hours—rather like a "sin bin" penalty in ice hockey!

The situation is further complicated by the fact that a foreigner who is banned for a serious offence in the UK gets his licence back when he leaves, as does a British subject disqualified overseas. Under new proposals being considered in Brussels, if a driver were to be banned abroad, the country responsible for issuing his driving licence would be informed. But then the problem arises: should he suffer disqualification for the same period as applies in the country where the offence was committed, or have a ban imposed that he would have received had the offence been committed at home? No wonder this EU-wide disqualification scheme has been under negotiation for more than seven years. Surely all this cries out for drink-driving penalties to be harmonised. On past experience and achievement, we should be in a strong position to advocate that these should be based on the existing UK criteria.

To sum up, if we have the safety of our fellow citizens at heart when they are driving not only in the UK but also on the Continent, I believe that we should accept the need to harmonise across the European Community both the legal limit and, even more importantly, the penalties for drink-driving offences. I believe, therefore, that we should bring pressure to bear on Mr. Kinnock and the Commission to bring about this harmonisation, rather than bury our heads in the sands of subsidiarity.

8.15 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, wish to join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, for his very able chairmanship of our committee and for the production of the report, together with our specialist adviser, Dr. Clayton, and our Clerk, Kate Ball. I have personally found it to be one of the most interesting inquiries that we have undertaken. I would comment particularly on the excellence of the witnesses. They were remarkably good.

The report was instigated by Commissioner Kinnock's revival of the draft directive on the harmonisation of blood alcohol levels across Europe. The harmonisation point is particularly important for those who live on mainland Europe, where to cross the border can form part of a normal outing. I know people who work in Holland and live in Belgium. People are constantly driving backwards and forwards across borders. I have an Austrian wife and we not infrequently make such trips. Harmonisation would mean that people will know precisely where they stand in each country. This matter is also tied up with the harmonisation of penalties and their application from one country to another, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haslam.

The drink-driving statistics indicate that the UK, in spite of its 80mg limit, has considerably better accident statistics than other countries with lower limits. That is markedly so. It is undoubtedly due to our better enforcement and much stiffer penalties, as already mentioned, and hence any measures taken can have only a limited scope compared to most other countries in the EU with records considerably worse than ours.

I would emphasise that drink-driving accidents account for only 14 per cent. of casualties. One needs to take account of the remaining 86 per cent. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, who made this point most emphatically. It is absolutely vital that that should be remembered. That remaining percentage is due to tiredness, speed, inattention, and, in my case, frustration with another driver, which led me to an extremely serious accident for which I was totally responsible—and I was totally sober. There is also the matter of driving under the influence of prescribed or illegal drugs, which accounts for some 15 per cent. of the total figure. The latter is a growing problem area in all countries, and breathalysers capable of testing for drugs are now starting to come out of the laboratory—I believe that they are undergoing initial tests by police forces. There are problems with the persistence of drugs over days, as mentioned by previous speakers.

It is obvious from the evidence of various witnesses that the statistics in Europe do not give an adequate picture from which realistic accident comparisons can he made across the various member states of the EU. Even in the United Kingdom, our statistics leave something to be desired and a pilot project is being run by the police to gather the primary and secondary causes of accidents. That will give a much better indication to everybody of what is happening.

Another point is the vast cultural differences which apply to alcohol consumption across the EU. We have our pub culture; the French treat wine as food; in southern Europe wine is drunk on every occasion; and in Sweden it is not acceptable to drink and drive, and your spouse may inform the police if you do, as was brought out by our Swedish witness. Many people in this country think that lowering the BAC level will spell the end of the country pub, as was said by my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie. However, I have been surprised by how much support there is for a reduction of the limit to the nominal zero or 20mg/100m1—that is, that one should not drink and drive. However, I support the report's finding for a 50mg limit and emphasise that this should be but one of a package of measures, as was mentioned by speakers and is outlined in our report.

I believe that better enforcement is essential. The perceived risk of being caught and losing one's driving licence must for most people be the best deterrent. But, as our report says, the two groups at which attention should be targeted are the younger drink-drivers and the older, hardened drinkers, the high risk offenders. Both those groups are unlikely to pay much attention to the amount they drink, whatever the BAC limit. Hence special attention should be given to those groups by targeted publicity and enforcement.

It was obvious from the evidence we received that the high risk offender scheme needs a considerable overhaul to bring it more in line with similar schemes in Germany and Sweden. Dr. Heather Major was emphatic on that point. It should also form part of a rehabilitation scheme for the people involved.

The use of the interlock device which prevents the car being driven if an in-built breath tester detects an excess of alcohol has been mentioned. There is also the possibility of confiscating the car in cases of extreme excess levels. This was referred to during the parliamentary beer festival which was mentioned by a previous speaker. Obviously the ownership of the car has to be considered, but I believe that that would be an important deterrent.

Targeted enforcement should not be at the expense of other police duties. However, in our meeting with Commissioner Kinnock, he said that the Commission reckoned the cost of each fatal accident at about 1 million ecu, which is equivalent to £800,000, in administrative and medical costs, loss of earnings, and so on. It should be noted that this is for some 45,000 traffic deaths per annum throughout the European Union. That is a colossal sum of money which could be used for better police enforcement, except that it does not, of course, come out of the same pocket.

A new generation of evidential breath testers is becoming available which could avoid the need for the offender to be taken to the police station for a blood test and so further reduce the administrative burden in processing these cases. This, together with targeted enforcement based on police intelligence on high risk offenders, could lead the way forward and is preferable to random testing.

My final comment on enforcement is that there needs to be better clarification of police powers, but not at the expense of other police activities, as was stated by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. Penalties should continue as now, but with a much improved HRO scheme.

Education and publicity should be targeted particularly at the younger driver. There should be emphasis on the morning-after effect and the length of time it takes to get the alcohol out of one's system. Campaigns should be year-round and not just at Christmas and during the summer. The limit is the least important point, but a reduction to 50mg emphasises the points that the report makes. I welcome the Government's consultative document.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he care to rephrase his expression "parliamentary beer festival"? Although I did not attend it, I think it was anything but that.

My Lords, I wonder whether I can help the noble Lord and the House. It was in fact a meeting of the Parliamentary Beer Club, which heard from three different witnesses—I use the word advisedly—purely, as my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth said, on the subject of drink-driving. It was certainly not a festival.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his correction. The club seems to have had very good speakers at that meeting and I was disappointed not to be able to attend. The notification arrived on the morning of the meeting. I believe that the club was lucky to have those speakers. It was interesting that the Canadian speaker said that two excellent documents were currently available: one was the Government's consultative paper and the other the report which we are debating.

8.26 p.m.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the Select Committee on producing a most interesting report and my noble friend Lord Geddes on his comprehensive and thorough introduction to it.

The report and today's debate are most timely because responses to the Government's consultation paper, Combating Drink Driving: next steps, published in February, are due this Friday. My speech will attempt to cover both the committee's report and the Government's consultation paper.

There is no doubt that the drink drive campaign over the past 30 years or so has been a major success story, and along with seat belts and, among other things, better roads and better cars, has resulted in a reduction in the number of deaths on our roads to record low levels. In 1949 there were 4,773 deaths and 4.1 million vehicles on the roads. In 1996 there were 3,598 deaths—fewer than in 1949—but an increase in vehicles to 26 million. The United Kingdom, with 6.4 deaths per 100,000 population, has the best record in Europe, Australia or the United States.

I believe that the main factor in the reduction in drink drive casualties has been the change in people's attitudes. That has taken many years, much publicity and much effort by successive Ministers and others involved in the issue. There is no doubt that drinking and driving was an activity that was considered perfectly acceptable by many people 30 years ago but is now thought socially unacceptable by the vast majority. In considering any possible reduction in the blood alcohol limit, one first needs to look at whether such a reduction will help with public support against drinking and driving or will damage that support, particularly from people who consider themselves perfectly capable of driving safely at up to the present limit. There is also the very important question of the relationship between the motorist and the police.

Secondly, as we have heard, only 14 per cent. of fatal accidents involve drivers with illegal levels of alcohol. I believe that that figure is itself rather crude. My understanding is that it takes no account of whether alcohol played any part in the accident or whether the accident would have happened anyway. After all, 86 per cent. of accidents do not involve alcohol. To give an extreme example, if a driver is stationary at a red traffic light and is hit from behind by a motor-cyclist, with fatal consequences, and if the driver of the stationary car tests positive, as I understand it, that accident is recorded as an alcohol-related accident. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, made reference to that point. Paragraph 31 of the report quotes the British Medical Association as saying that it is safe to assume that any accident-involved driver with an illegal BAC contributed to the cause of that accident. I do not believe that to be a true assumption.

In speaking in this debate. I find myself involved with no fewer than three of the organisations that gave evidence to the committee. I am a member of the public policy committee of the RAC, a trustee of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention and a director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Those three organisations did not have the same opinions on all the matters of report, particularly on the main issue of lowering the limit, but it is not my role necessarily to agree with what was said by them. Both the RAC and the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention oppose a reduction, while PACTS supports one. Nevertheless all three make some very good points in their evidence.

As both the report and the Government's consultation paper point out, there are two critical target groups: those who drive well in excess of the limit and new, younger drivers, usually men in their twenties. I agree with the conclusion of the report that efforts should be targeted particularly at these two groups.

Enforcement is an issue that rightly comes up again and again, particularly random breath testing, a phrase that means different things to different people. My understanding is that the police have all the powers they need to stop a driver on suspicion of being over the limit. If, as the report suggests, the police need better training in the powers available to them, I support that. I am not in favour of setting up roadblocks and testing everyone who comes by. As well as being a waste of precious police resources that would be better employed targeting high-risk offenders, they infuriate the innocent motorist and do nothing to help with the all important public-police relationship.

The Medical Commission on Accident Prevention makes the point that lowering the limit would divert police enforcement towards lower risk cases with an above average risk of two-and-a-half times and away from the over 50 per cent. of presently convicted drink drivers that have over 15 times the risk of accident involvement. After a motorist is stopped and tested positive he or she has to be taken to the police station and retested, a great deal of paper work has to be done and one way or another that particular police patrol car is off the circuit for a long time. Peter Joslin, Chief Constable of Warwickshire, to whom my noble friend Lord Lucas referred, suggested that lowering the limit might increase the number of hit-and-run cases. More motorists, even those not at fault, might be reluctant to stop and fear the risk of being breathalysed. In addition, if I read the figures from annex 1 to the Government's consultation paper correctly, over the three years 1993 to 1995 only around 2 per cent. of drivers and 3 per cent. of motor-cyclists who were killed in road accidents had blood alcohol levels above 50 but under 80.

Both the committee and PACTS agree that making road policing a core policy objective would be helpful and could help reduce accidents, not just those involving alcohol. The committee, too, was concerned that emphasis put on reducing the 14 per cent. of fatalities involving drink driving is out of proportion to the other 86 per cent. of fatal accidents.

Like the committee, I can see no clear benefits for the Community in harmonising limits at 50. I very much agree that setting the level is a matter for member state governments. In any case, the limit is only one factor. Penalties are just as important, and they seem, from the evidence that I have seen, to vary from one country to another almost as widely as it is possible to imagine. Nor is there evidence that in countries where the limit is lower there are fewer fatalities; quite the contrary. Portugal, for example, with a limit of 50, has a fatality rate over double those of countries with an 80 limit.

To conclude, I do not agree with the majority of the committee that the limit should be lowered to 50, but, excluding that, I very much agree that a package of measures would be the most effective way, particularly targeting the two groups most at risk. But above all I agree that more emphasis should be given to reducing the 86 per cent. of fatal accidents not involving drink driving.

The Government are naturally keen to develop a strategy to reduce road casualties. They have a difficult task, and we must wish them well. I note that on page 11 of the consultation paper they compare the 3,598 road fatalities in Great Britain in 1996 with the 850 homicides in the UK that year. Murder has always been an offence with well-known and severe penalties, and yet there are still 850 a year. I do not know whether that trend is up or down. I very much hope the trend in road casualties continues downwards, but it is clearly unrealistic to suppose that they can be eliminated altogether. I fear, like some noble Lords, that we may be nearing a plateau.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on the particular aspect of road safety we have been debating this evening. However, I urge her to concentrate most of her efforts on the vast majority of accidents not involving alcohol, and the many ways, including fairly low-costs road safety schemes and restoring the bypass programme, that can help reduce casualties far more than tinkering with the levels.

8.34 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful, as is the whole House, to the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, and his committee for the work that they have undertaken on this subject. It was clear from the contributions made today that it was not an easy task to chair this committee. The noble Lord obviously achieved it with great skill and the congratulations offered to him were heartfelt.

I too offer heartfelt congratulations and thanks to the committee on the timing of its deliberations and recommendations. As was pointed out by many speakers, it coincided with the Government's consultation on a range of measures to combat drink driving. I hope that noble Lords will not think it diminishes the work of the committee if I say that, from my perspective, it is an enormously well-researched and well-thought out contribution to the consultation process that we are currently undertaking. I suspect that some noble Lords will not be as happy as I am because, with the consultation process not finishing until the end of this week, I shall not be able to give as definite an answer to some of the recommendations as I would be able to in other circumstances.

We will shortly be letting the committee have the Government's formal response to the recommendations. Many of the conclusions are in line with our policy proposals and it is reassuring to know that we have the Select Committee's support in so many areas. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand that I shall need to reserve the Government's position on certain points until we have had time to take account of the responses to the consultation exercise.

As is only right and proper, the debate tonight showed how wide the views can be on this issue. Many noble Lords referred to the importance of compliance, acceptability and understanding of the measures being put forward. That is why it is a real consultation process in which we wish to hear people's views. I was slightly disappointed in the majority of the responses to the consultation document in that they focused only on the issue of the blood alcohol level. We tried in that consultation document to make clear that we were considering a range of measures and that the Government accept wholeheartedly what is the thesis of the Select Committee; that is, that there is no single quick fix in this area; that if we look to other jurisdictions and to our experience in this country, we need a package of measures that is a balanced one. I am glad therefore that the committee did the opposite of what some of the respondents to the consultation document did and went slightly wider than its original brief, which was to look only at the terms of the draft directive. It very properly commented on a whole range of issues in relation to drink driving.

It has been an excellent debate this evening. I was delighted that many noble Lords shared with me a somewhat surprised attitude at how fascinating the subject has been. For many road safety did not, on the surface, look to be an issue that was both intellectually challenging and of desperate importance to individuals. It is only when, for some reason—either through personal experience or through working in the field—we actually come into contact with the issues that we realise that it is both of those things and many others as well. It is an interesting political, rather than party political, issue with which to be involved.

The contributions tonight were excellent. I also received a kind message from my noble friend Lady Castle. She would have liked to be here this evening but it is a little late for her. I join with earlier speakers in paying tribute to her courage and foresight—a debt that all of us in this country owe to her—in introducing the original drink drive and breath-test legislation into the Road Safety Act 1967. She helped this country turn the corner in casualty reduction. Many noble Lords referred to our achievements and our comparative record in relation to other countries. My noble friend played a great part in that and it is important that we recognise the seminal events that helped us to achieve that record. It is interesting to talk to her occasionally and to learn that some of the debates and the passions that we are experiencing now were also rehearsed before the 1967 Act, just as in other jurisdictions they are being rehearsed at present. These are important issues and there are balances to be struck.

The Select Committee obviously looked at this issue because, by definition, it was in its terms of reference examining a draft directive. It sees the situation from a European perspective. That is not the perspective from which the Government are looking at these issues. That was not the genesis of our consultation document which came from a longstanding commitment to consult about the blood alcohol level. More importantly, it comes from the document that we put out last year looking at a road safety strategy and targets for the year 2000 and beyond. We see any proposals about drink drive in that context.

Just as the committee believes that we need a package of measures on drink drive, the Government believe that that package has in turn to be part of a wider range of measures that contribute to a road safety strategy. I did bridle a little at paragraph 88 of the Select Committee's report. When one invites witnesses and, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out, one sets up an inquiry into drink drive and blood alcohol limits, it is difficult then to criticise people for commenting only in that area.

I am very aware that there are many other issues in road safety that we need to tackle. That is why the Government are consulting on and implementing a strategy on a whole range of measures. I share the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that we should not be exclusive about this. I do not believe that we are exclusive or disproportionate when I look at the work of the department at the moment and what I am doing as the Minister responsible for road safety in the month of May. The reason why I am dealing with drink drive issues is the need to answer correspondence on the consultation document. We are re-launching the radio advertising campaign on "Kill Your Speed". That campaign will take £3.5 million of departmental resources this year compared with £2 million of advertising on drink drive.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves this point, I hope that when she reads the Official Report tomorrow or whenever she gets round to doing so, she will see that what I said was exactly the opposite. What is not fair in criticism of this report is to say that it has not gone wide enough and carried the other 86 per cent. of road accidents with it.

My Lords, I obviously expressed myself badly. I believe that the noble Lord and I are at one on this. There is no criticism of the report not going wider in this area, but I do not think it right to criticise the Government for giving disproportionate attention to this area. There is a whole range of issues where we look at everything from the seat belt wearing campaign that we are planning, the strategy on safe routes to school in order to allow children to cycle and walk more safely, and the policies of the local authorities to introduce 20 mile per hour speed limits. There is also what we are going to do over the next range of issues which is at the European level. These include EuroNcap crash testing, the safety of vehicles and the training and testing of drivers. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, I take that very seriously as an issue on which we need to improve standards.

But we shall not attack the 3,598 deaths in one single measure. We shall make inroads only if we are willing to take a comprehensive approach and take measures across a whole range of areas. It is something of a sterile debate to say that only one in seven accidents relates to drink drive. It is sterile because it is important that we recognise that only 1 per cent. of drivers are involved in 14 per cent. of fatal accidents. If we can make an impact on that 1 per cent. we can make a substantial impact on road fatalities.

Drink drive accidents are avoidable. They can be avoided by conscious decisions not to drink before driving. We have heard a lot about immutable and ingrained social habits. But enormous progress and change have been made in the United Kingdom since 1967 which many doubted would be possible. There is the experience of other countries such as Australia. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is not here to give us her antipodean experience; but I suggest that drinking is as much part of the Australian culture as it is of this country's, yet Australian states all now have a 50mg limit and most have intensive enforcement. That has not been the end of civilisation or social life as they know it in Australia.

At the other end of the scale, in this country there has been something of a counsel of despair about what we can do concerning the high risk offender. One of the things that encourages me is that the drink drive rehabilitation courses are influencing the behaviour even of hardened drink drivers who have offended more than once. So I do not believe that we need to be fatalistic about this. It is not going to be easy to make inroads into the casualty figures, but we can do so. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that it is necessary to do so given that we seem to be bouncing along at the bottom of the reductions that were so obvious in drink driving casualties.

The Government have not taken a final view on the issues on which we consulted. We are aiming to produce a coherent package of measures that will reduce drink drive across the board. The questions of which measures we take and which will provide the highest benefits are matters of judgment. I reiterate that no country which has successfully reduced drink driving has relied on a single measure. That was one of the main thrusts of the committee's report. It is certainly a thesis with which the Government agree wholeheartedly.

Where I differ from some noble Lords who have spoken, and with some of the correspondence on the subject, is to suggest that we can categorise this as, "You should not deal with this because the real problem is that". There is a range of problems in this area. There is also a range of problems from the high risk persistent offender to the young offender who, even at low levels because he is an inexperienced driver, is particularly susceptible. We have to recognise the problem of the impairment that occurs to people at levels below 80mg. Evidence about that has been referred to. They are at greater risk of both engendering an accident themselves and not being able to respond in such a way as to avoid an accident because of the behaviour of others on the road or when other dangerous circumstances occur.

It would be irresponsible of any government not to look at the impairment of drivers between the present limit and a reduced limit, given the evidence of increased risk. We have to take into account the whole range of issues that noble Lords have raised today as to whether reducing the limit would in fact alienate public opinion and detract from the effectiveness of measures that are already in place. I have not seen the AA briefing, but I am interested in the figures that it has suggested of the number of people who support reducing the limit. However, I understood from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that the figure was 79 per cent. The latest tracking figures from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions gave us 77 per cent. of people who supported reducing the limit—although among those there is a division between those who believe we should go down to 50 and those who share the view expressed personally by the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, that we should go down to in effect a zero limit.

Certainly there is consistent evidence that there is widespread public support for this measure and so, while I take seriously the issue raised by the noble Lords, Lord Gisborough and Lord Mackie of Benshie, about the feelings in some areas that this would be a great inhibition on social life, there are also many people who feel that the reduction of risk on the road is something that they would wish to see. They feel that because this is not only an issue relating to personal safety and personal behaviour; it is an issue for other road users, particularly those who are vulnerable—the pedestrians and the cyclists. The people who are injured in drink drive accidents are not only drink drivers. The Government therefore have to look very seriously at this matter when there are potential benefits to be gained in terms of lives saved.

Reference has been made to the number of lives that would actually be saved and what number would be acceptable as justifying the measures involved in terms of curbs on individual freedom and the effect that there might be on populations. In a way, one is forced to be hard-headed about cost-benefit analysis when you have to make choices about resources, whether they are police enforcement resources, financial resources or anything else. It is more difficult to be that hard-headed about the number of lives it is justified to save when you see the correspondence from individual people and families who have been bereaved. It is also harder to see the other side of the coin. But it is important that these matters are debated in a broad and open forum, and I welcome the contributions that have been made tonight, which very much mirror the debate going on in the country at the moment and also of course beyond our shores.

I take seriously the work of the committee. Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Berkeley, referred to the high-risk offenders and what lessons might be learnt from the Swedish and German examples and schemes in that respect. Our consultation document acknowledged the need for improvement in this area. This is another aspect where it has been extremely helpful for the committee to have taken such detailed evidence. It gives us a basis on which to assess what we need to do.

We also need to look particularly at the young driver concerning a whole variety of issues. Again, the committee's views, particularly on the impracticability of differential rates and differential penalties or levels of alcohol for young drivers and newly qualified drivers, are extremely helpful. I think we are making progress in terms of social attitudes. I should like to pay tribute to the difference of the younger generation from my generation in their attitudes towards responsibility in this area. There is a spill-over in attitudes to driving in relation to drink in terms of responsible attitudes to driving on issues like speeding.

Again, we are part of a continuum and we need to do the educational work. For example, the Driving Standards Agency is becoming very interested in the area of pre-driver education in talking to young people, before they become drivers, about their attitudes. Often the driving test can measure whether someone can manoeuvre a car competently. Some of the young men who are best at doing manoeuvres during a driving test are also those whose attitude towards driving is the least responsible and therefore they have the most accidents. Anything we can do to change that kind of attitude is important.

On the issue of drugs and driving, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and by my noble friend Lord Simon—and indeed also in the report—far less is known about this in any country than about the effects of drink, but we are trying to catch up. A three-year research study was set up in 1996 to study the influence of drugs among people who were killed in road accidents—drivers, passengers or pedestrians. It covers both illicit and prescribed drugs likely to impair road behaviour. Figures released in February indicate that the incidence of illicit drug use among road fatalities has increased considerably during the last decade. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, who I think quoted figures about this, that the incidence of illicit drug use does not show us how far the presence of drugs was a major cause or factor in these accidents. However, with more research both here and abroad we are slowly building up a better understanding of that relationship.

Another current project is a trial of roadside drug testing equipment, looking mainly at the practical and operational issues surrounding its use for drug screening. It is important that we look at the potential problem and try now to put in train the measures that could help us before this becomes a major problem. The committee considered the question of subsidiarity. This was something to which the noble Lord, Lord Haslam, referred: whether it is right for a drink drive limit to be set at Community level rather than by individual member states. It is a question that lies at the heart of the Select Committee's expertise and interest. I would not like to enter the fray on this issue with members of the committee. It is clear enough that the Community has competence to legislate in this area but it does not have exclusive competence. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, as far as road safety is concerned that is not to us the central issue.

Even if the Community were to adopt a common limit, that would not remove the need for us to build round it a suitable programme of enforcement, publicity and education and to ensure that appropriate penalties were available. These are matters which lie largely outside the jurisdiction of the Community, but they are central to the package approach that we envisage. Drink driving is a worldwide problem and the subject of heated debate in many countries. I have mentioned Australia, but in the United States a debate is going on similar to that in Britain. A main difference there is that the federal government are trying by economic means and incentives to persuade the majority of states with a 100 mg limit to lower it to 80. They are having in parallel many of the same debates about the costs, the benefits and the relative priorities of doing that as we are having here.

I welcome the fact that tonight, despite the differing views that have been expressed about the issue of the blood alcohol level itself and the differing views about what profile, if you like, or the amount of resources that the Government ought to put into drink drive as against the other 85 per cent. of accidents which are not drink related, no one has suggested that it is not a serious road safety issue. The reason, if I may go back to why we are having the debate in the first place—the debate nationally rather than this debate—is that, although we have achieved a tremendous amount for many years, the sad fact is—it has been referred to by other speakers tonight—that there has been little change in casualty figures since 1993.

As a government, we do not believe that we can simply tread water in this area any more than we can in other areas of casualty reduction. We have done extremely well, but we should not be complacent and just because we have had some of the "easy wins" on a variety of road safety measures, that does not mean that we should not tackle some of the more "difficult wins" which will nevertheless make an enormous difference to the risk on our roads and to the lives of the families of the victims which can be blighted as a result of road accidents.

New measures are needed if casualties are further to be reduced. The points made by the Select Committee will be extremely valuable in helping us to draw up a suitable package which will also take account of all the responses that we have received to the consultation exercise. I am extremely grateful to the Select Committee for its contribution to the debate. I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming with precise responses to some of its recommendations. I assure members of the committee that it will not be too long before we can, I hope, say something about a national strategy for reducing road casualties, in which a policy to reduce drink driving accidents will play a major but not an overwhelming part.

9.1 p.m.

My Lords, it is traditional when winding up on such occasions that the Peer doing the winding up comments on the speeches made. The evening is far from young and, if I may be forgiven, I shall resist that temptation, perhaps to the relief of your Lordships.

Perhaps I may be allowed to put the record straight on a personal front. I reiterate my own view that if the blood alcohol level is to be reduced, it should not be tinkered with to 50 milligrams, but should be reduced to an effective zero. In my opening remarks, I failed to add that I do not think that this country is yet ready for that. When it will be ready for that, if ever, I know not. My point was, "Don't tinker to 50 milligrams; either leave the limit where it is or reduce it to an effective zero, but not yet".

I am most grateful to the Minister—and I mean that most sincerely. She always responds with great care and attention to debates such as this and that is greatly appreciated, certainly from the Select Committee's point of view. I am not surprised that the noble Baroness cannot give us a definitive answer because the consultation period still has two days to go. However, I hope that our report will have provided a major part of the consultative exercise and that the Government will take it seriously.

I should like to pick up on only two of the Minister's points. Like her—I had not realised this until she said it—I am greatly concerned that the replies to the consultative document have concentrated on the BAC limit. As we said in our report, that seemed to us to be the least important element, not the most important. As I said in my opening remarks, however, it is the one that attracts all the attention. That is a pity, but it is nevertheless a fact.

Secondly, perhaps I may reassure the Minister because I think that she is being over-sensitive to our comments at paragraph 88 of the report. I certainly did not view the drafting of that paragraph as in any way a direct criticism of the Government, by which I mean "the present Government". If there was a criticism, it was of government in general over many years. One should pay just as much attention to the 86 per cent. as to the 16 per cent. Perhaps the Minister can now reduce her sensitivity on that point.

It is again traditional to say, "This has been an extremely interesting and fascinating debate". I believe that it has been an interesting and fascinating debate. It has been a very valuable debate, as I hope the Government agree. This is a subject on which there are more walking experts than on any other subject of which I know. Everybody has a definitive opinion and everybody knows that their opinion is correct. What has been interesting is that in the microcosm or micro-poll of this debate, we have had 13 speakers (excluding the Minister), of whom six have been against reducing the blood alcohol level with seven in favour. That is a classic example of being split down the middle. Those are the opinions, and everybody holds their own opinion very strongly.

I most sincerely thank all those who have spoken, the six members of the committee and the six non-committee members. In particular, I thank the Minister for her contribution and I commend the report to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.