Alcohol remains the ‘biggest impairment to driving’

12.00 | 4 March 2016 | | 3 comments

A new report written and published on behalf of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport (PACTS) has confirmed that alcohol is the biggest impairment to drivers.

Fit to Drive?, produced by a team of road safety academics and experts*, examines the law as it stands, factors affecting fitness to drive, and gaps that need to be addressed.

Among its key findings is a suggestion that lowering the legal drink drive limit to 50mg/100ml could save an estimated 25 lives and prevent 95 serious injuries annually.

The report also recommends that the DfT and Home Office should focus on ‘type approval’ of roadside evidential breath testing equipment to ‘save police time’, and says that higher levels of enforcement would act as a deterrent to drink drivers.

Interestingly, the report also suggests that widespread breath-testing following crashes could lead to alcohol being over-attributed as the key factor leading to a collision.

The report also calls for wider use of alcolocks by fleet operators and in the rehabilitation of previous drink-drive offenders.

With regard to drug driving, the report cites a ‘zero tolerance approach to illicit drugs which is political rather than road safety based’. It says the incidence of illicit drugs in both fatal and non-fatal crashes is around 6%.

With regard to driver fatigue, the report says it is now ‘widely accepted that fatigue is a major contributory factor particularly in the early hours of the morning and on long distance journeys on major roads or motorways’. The authors call for Highways England and other strategic road authorities to ‘consider design treatments that can break up the monotony of long-distance driving’.

With regard to eyesight, the report says there is ‘no strong evidence that deficiencies in eyesight present a major road safety risk’. However, the authors go on to say with an ageing population, eyesight is likely to increase as a risk factor, and that ‘current procedures are not sufficient to identify those with inadequate eyesight’.

On mental or physical illness or disability – including brain injury, Parkinson’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis and stroke – the report says many of these conditions are age-related and set to increase with an ageing population in the next 20 years. It also says ‘evidence points to an increase in collision involvement rates among older drivers’.

With no single set of tests to assess fitness to drive currently available, the report calls for the government to fund research into developing a ‘clinically viable desk based assessment of driving safety’.

In circumstances where someone is advised to stop driving, the report says they should be ‘supported with alternatives to maintain mobility and avoid social exclusion’ – and suggests that autonomous cars may have a role to play in supporting the safer mobility of people with cognitive impairment.

Professor Oliver Carsten, lead author of the report, said: “Short-term factors based on personal behaviour such as alcohol and drug use are widely known to affect fitness to drive.

“However, there are long-term factors such as physical or cognitive impairment that account for 6 per cent of all fatal crashes, while fatigue is a factor in 3%.”

On fitness to drive, he added: “The EU Directive on fitness to drive includes the requirement to consult with “authorised medical opinion” to obtain expert judgement on many of the factors. We have to ask: how that expert judgement is to be obtained and who is qualified to give it?”

David Davies, executive director of PACTS, said: “The Government has recently published its road safety statement reaffirming its aims to reduce death and injury on the road.

“This report highlights where improvements are to be made and we hope that all relevant departments and agencies collaborate to act on its recommendations.”

*Fit to Drive? is written by Oliver Carsten, professor of transport studies at Leeds University; Dan Campsall, director of Road Safety Analysis; Nicola Christie, senior lecturer at UCL; and Rob Tunbridge, independent research professional on behalf of the PACTS Road User Behaviour Working Party.


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    If you take almost any incident that results in a crash then you will find that it is the rate at which the initial event transforms into a crash that is the largest determinant as to whether the vehicles can be controlled sufficiently to avoid the crash. Perhaps more than anything speed overlays all of our ability to avoid, correct and control.

    Whilst it is quite correct to look at driver impairment that limits their ability to make timely, concise and wise reactions and decisions, we should not overlook the time dimension that so clearly sets the parameters within which actions are to be conducted if a crash is not to be avoided.

    A real world does have parents with distracting children, drivers with heavy colds, drivers with varying visual and spatial acuity, drivers with differing physical and mental capabilities. It also has pedestrians and others with similar “impairments”. Whilst we cand and do legislate some of these out. The best we can do is create a safe system that takes account of their existance.

    Our roads are not 100% populated by elite and highly skilled drivers. The law requires that local authorities set realistic expectations of the fitness, impairment levels and negligence of road users when designing and maintaining our streets. With speed playing such a factor in leveraging those imperfections then the question to ask is how much speed limits should take account of the impairment (and negligence) that we know exists.

    Rod King, 20’s Plenty for Us
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    With alcohol being the trigger and primary cause of a lot of social ills – not just road accidents – it amazes me that, as far as I know, no compensation claims, personal injury or even manslaughter charges have ever been brought against breweries and/or alcohol retailers.

    Where alcohol consumption is cited as the primary factor in fatalities on the road, what stops the authorities prosecuting those who manufacture market and retail it? Simply putting “Drink sensibly” on the bottle does not count as a defence in my view.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
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    If alcohol affects the ability to drive and governments allow or permit the drinking of some before driving why is there a zero tolerance to other driver impairing drugs?

    Allowing persons who drive the possibility of a drink and knowing full well through irrefutable evidence that it impairs one’s ability is to me an offence in itself. It is interesting to note para 7 which states that the matter of drug driving is a political matter rather than a road safety one. I said the same thing recently about drink driving but it was not published.

    R.Craven Blackpool
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