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Driving: Blood Alcohol Limit

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider introducing a 50 milligram blood alcohol limit for drivers aged under 21.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to introduce a lower blood alcohol limit. The North review did not support a lower limit for drivers under 21 and the Government endorsed this. The Department for Transport is considering several options to ensure that newly qualified drivers drive safely.

As the Minister will be aware, I have shifted my position considerably in the spirit of Christmas. I have moved away from a demand for zero tolerance to what seems to be a reasonable compromise to move forward. I am sorry that in his first response he said that the Government will not move, but at least they are prepared to consider some movement for younger drivers. All the evidence indicates that this is required. Will the Minister confirm to the House that the number of drink-driving deaths went up last year for the first time in a number of years, and that we need to take action in the near future?

My Lords, I confirm that there was some unwelcome news on the number of casualties. However, if one looks at the graph, there continues to be a welcome downward trajectory. None the less, across the House, we all need to work hard to continue that downward trajectory.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how many fatalities per year the department believe to have any connection with drink-driving among people under 21?

My Lords, I am not sure regarding those under 21. The key figure is 280 drink-related fatalities per year.

My Lords, will the Minister explain what the measures are to improve the safety of young drivers which he alluded to in his first response?

My Lords, we are considering all possible options at the moment to continue the downward trend.

Will the Minister comment on the increasing and worrying trend of people driving under the influence of drugs? Will he tell the House when it is likely that a device will be approved for roadside testing in this regard?

My Lords, during the passage of the Crime and Courts Bill this afternoon we will be taking the drug-driving provisions through. There are two pieces of equipment to be approved: the station-based drug testing equipment, which is on track to be approved by the Home Office shortly, and the roadside drug testing equipment, which is a little more difficult; we need to wait for the outcome of the expert panel which is looking at the appropriate levels before we can set its specification.

My Lords, how long does it take for the blood alcohol level to return to zero from 80 milligrams when the alcohol disperses naturally?

My Lords, I do not know, but the key point is that there is no safe limit of alcohol in the blood when driving a vehicle. Therefore, we advise that the best option is not to drink at all.

My Lords, I note that the noble Earl told us that there was a downward trajectory. Will he give us the figures for the number of fatalities in the past year and for the year before that to demonstrate that? What stance are the Government taking on the BMA’s recommendations on this matter?

My Lords, the casualty figures were distorted slightly by the number of casualties in 2010, which were slightly lower; we believe that that was due to the bad weather. The key point is that the figures for 2011 were still better than those for 2009.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how the United Kingdom’s blood alcohol limit compares with those of the rest of Europe?

My Lords, many European countries have a 50 milligram blood alcohol limit. However, they also have lower penalties at that level. Our policy is to have an 80 milligram limit but very severe penalties if you exceed the limit. This seems to have the right effect because our safety record is better than that on the continent.

My Lords, if the noble Earl is saying that 80 milligrams is the correct level for us, what about Scotland and Wales? Presumably they will decrease their level to 50 milligrams.

My Lords, the noble Viscount is quite right; Scotland has the power to set a lower limit. However, it cannot change the penalties. If it does change its limit, it will be very interesting to see what the effect will be on casualties.

My Lords, in France it is now compulsory by law to carry a breathalyser kit in one’s car. Is the UK considering anything like that?

My Lords, absolutely not. The difficulty with that idea is that it would enable drivers to drink more while believing that they were below the limit. Our policy is that there is no safe level of alcohol in the blood when driving. Therefore, we do not support the compulsory carrying of breathalysers by drivers.

My Lords, when the Minister gave the figures for the number of fatalities involving drink, did all of those incidents involve blood alcohol levels above the current limit? My recollection is that one problem with the issue was that no statistics were kept for accidents involving drinkers who were below the 80 milligram limit but above the 50 milligram limit. Is that information now available?

My Lords, it may well be available but I am not aware of it. However, my point is that there is no safe blood alcohol level when one is driving a vehicle.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to options and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked him if he could specify some of the options. Can he give us at least two of them?

My Lords, one option—and it is only an option—would be to deal with the problem of tragic accidents where several youngsters are killed in one vehicle. These are very distressing accidents and we need to consider whether we should allow a young driver to carry several youngsters. However, there is a contrary argument, which noble Lords opposite articulated when they were Ministers, that that could have an economic effect. It could mean that the system of one sober driver might not work. So we need to consider carefully what the options are to make sure that there are no unintended consequences.

My Lords, will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House which drugs will be detected if the detection equipment is found to be reliable?

My Lords, we are shortly going to be publishing the review of the expert panel which will tell us which drugs and what levels for each drug will be detected, based on scientific evidence, and the risk associated with them.