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Roads: Drink-drive Limit

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

Question

Asked By

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving road safety and reducing the number of drink-related road casualties. As the House knows, the previous Government commissioned Sir Peter North to undertake an independent review of measures to combat drink and drug driving in Great Britain. We are considering the report’s recommendations. We have reached no conclusions yet, but we aim to respond to the report by the end of the year.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is the Minister able to give an assurance that the Government will seriously consider the North committee’s proposal to reduce alcohol limits to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, in line with the prescription pursued by the Governments of Germany, France, Holland, Spain and Italy. Why should we be the sole exception? Would he acknowledge that, if the North committee’s report was followed, hundreds of lives would be saved?

My Lords, we will consider the report very carefully indeed. On the noble Lord’s point about other countries, they have lower limits, but they also have much lower penalties for low blood alcohol concentrations.

There are thought to be two groups of drinkers. There are regulated drinkers who drink at home and who, if they drink out, arrange their affairs so that they do not need to drink and drive. Such drinkers know how much they have drunk and, if they do offend, it is a terrible mistake for them. It is relatively easy for the police to detect such people if they drink and drive, and they are terrified of being caught because of the consequences. There are also unregulated drinkers who do not control how much they drink, are clinically or socially dependent upon alcohol, will drive with a BAC far in excess of the legal limit and have no intention of adhering to the drink-drive legislation.

Another problem in addition to that which the noble Lord seeks to identify is the prevalence of driving under the influence of drugs. What progress is being made towards the development of a device that could be used at the roadside to prove that a person has been affected by taking drugs?

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. We are making good progress with drink-driving, but drug-driving is increasing. The noble Lord referred to roadside testing. It is important to have a Home Office-approved roadside testing device in order to be able to move on to the invasive procedure of taking a blood sample without the need for a doctor.

My Lords, I first declare an interest as a member of the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving. My mother was killed by a drunk driver—our neighbour at that stage—who was not a long-standing overdrinker in the way that the noble Earl said but a normal drinker. When the Minister looks at the North report, I ask him to remember that we could reduce drink-driving deaths by about 150 a year from its present level of perhaps 400 a year. That would save 150 families what I and my family went through. Will he resist the blandishments that he will undoubtedly receive from the drinks industry and take this important step forward?

My Lords, first, I have had no blandishments from the drinks industry and am actually quite surprised by how little effort it is putting into lobbying the Government. Clearly, it is lobbying, but not as much as it could.

Going back to my point about regulated and unregulated drinkers, I think that it is not clear how lowering the BAC, which would have a significant impact on regulated drinkers, would have any beneficial effect on unregulated drinkers who have no intention whatever of meeting their moral or legal obligations.

My Lords, in 2009, drink-drivers caused 390 deaths and almost 23,000 serious injuries at a cost to the taxpayer of £15.6 billion. How many of these casualties could have been avoided and how much of this expenditure could have been saved if we had reduced the legal limit to 20 milligrams, as is the case in Sweden? What other measures in the report that has been referred to, such as making persistent offenders pass a test before they can resume driving after a ban, are now being considered?

My Lords, we need to consider carefully the effect of lowering the blood alcohol limit. Suppose that we lowered the BAC to 50 milligrams and a traffic patrol detected a motorist driving with a BAC of 65 milligrams. It would take the patrol at least an hour to process the suspect, during which time it would be unable to detect the unregulated drinker to whom I referred, who might be driving with a BAC far in excess of the current limits.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to raise awareness of the potentially serious problems of using prescription drugs when driving, alongside their measures to prevent the use of illegal drugs when driving?

My Lords, the North report covers this issue in some detail, and we are considering it as part of our deliberations on the North report.

Is my noble friend aware of the 1998 report of European Union Sub-Committee B? I doubt whether much has changed in this context in 12 years. The report concluded that the benefits of reducing the limit from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams were at best highly marginal. Would he advise the House of his opinion of the benefits of random testing over the present system?

My Lords, the police already have wide powers to stop vehicles and to test for alcohol, and many forces carry out intelligence-led, targeted breath testing where drinking is known to take place. Sir Peter has recommended a specific power to sanction random testing, and we have to consider whether this is necessary and cost-effective, bearing in mind that most drivers are regulated drinkers or teetotal.