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Roads: Blood Alcohol Limit

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 11 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential reduction in road accidents if the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers were reduced from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres.

My Lords, there has been a considerable reduction in alcohol-related road casualties over the past 30 years. Fatalities have fallen by two-thirds since 1979 and fell by 18 per cent in 2007 alone. The UK statistics compare favourably with those of other countries. Evidence is inconclusive on whether a lower prescribed limit will further reduce casualty numbers. However, we are consulting on further measures, including whether the limit should be reduced from 80 to 50 milligrams.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree with Professor Richard Allsop of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London that reducing the level from 80 to 50 milligrams would save 65 deaths and 250 serious injuries every year? Does he agree that that is worth having? As long ago as 1998, the Government stated that they were minded to lower the drink-drive level, following a report from the House of Lords European Union Committee. Why did they change their mind two or three years later? Why have they not done more?

My Lords, my noble friend refers to the assessments made by Professor Richard Allsop of University College London. They are estimates of possible savings and rely heavily on assumptions about changes in driver behaviour resulting from a reduction in the legal limit. We need more evidence to test those assumptions; in particular, we need a better data set on accidents involving drivers at between 50 and 80 milligrams. For this reason, we are collecting up-to-date police reports on the breath-test levels that they find in all tests at accidents. We are also developing a new drink-drive roadside survey and digital breath-testing equipment to deliver comprehensive data on all breath tests. However, my noble friend is right about the need vigorously to pursue those who are engaged in drink-drinking. Our publicity campaigns have been highly successful. In recent years, we have seen a substantial reduction in the number of accidents, including those involving drink-drivers, and we wish to see it sustained.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the limit, it is unlikely to be effective unless it is rigorously enforced so that people genuinely believe that there is a realistic chance that they will be caught if they drink and drive? Will he undertake to encourage the police to enforce the law consistently across all areas of the country, including at non-recordable levels of offence? I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Portman Group, which ran many drink-drive campaigns—or campaigns against drink-driving, I should say.

My Lords, I absolutely agree on the importance of enforcement. The likelihood of enforcement has the greatest bearing on whether drivers are likely to break the law. We have tough penalties for drink-drivers in this country. The comparative data show us in a favourable light with other European countries. We believe that that rests in part on our stiff penalties and consistent and tough enforcement of the law in this area.

My Lords, will the Minister include in the consultations to which he referred the British Medical Association, which has been pressing for a reduction in the legal limit for some considerable years and has accumulated considerable evidence to support that case?

My Lords, we are consulting all interested parties and we will welcome the BMA’s views. We would also welcome the evidence to which the noble Lord referred because at the moment the evidence is inconclusive. I stress to the House that, although we have a higher limit than most European countries, we have a much better road safety record than most of those countries, including many fewer deaths with a drink-driving component. The evidence shows that our tough and consistent enforcement regime underpins that. The whole House would wish to see that enforcement regime prosecuted to the strongest possible extent, alongside any measures that we might take to reduce the limit.

My Lords, how does the Minister justify our being out of step with 23 of the other countries of the European Union, which have the 50 milligram limit, not the 80 milligram limit? Also, how many police forces will follow the example of the four police forces in Wales, which are going to breathalyse randomly during the Christmas period? Last year, 19,000 random tests were held and more than 500—558, I think—were found to be above the limit.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to say that most other European countries have a lower drink-drive limit than we have, but our road-deaths record is better than that of almost all those countries. The latest figures—those for 2006—record 5.4 road deaths per 100,000 of the population in the United Kingdom. That compares with 8.9 in Austria, 10.2 in Belgium, 7.7 in France, 14.9 in Greece, 9.7 in Italy, 9.2 in Portugal and 9.4 in Spain. All those countries have a lower limit, so there is clearly no direct relationship between a lower limit and deaths on the road, including deaths related to drivers under the influence of alcohol.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when we talk about clarity of communication, as we were earlier, the clear communication that ought to go out in this festive season is that the only safe level at which you ought to be behind the wheel of a car is zero?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. We need to be absolutely clear in our message to drivers and our message could not be clearer in the “Think!” campaign, which makes it abundantly clear to drivers that those who are under the influence of alcohol will be treated in the way in which all other criminals are treated when they have broken the law.