In our latest opinion piece, Hunter Abbott questions why England, Wales and Northern Ireland have a drink drive limit “so high that it’s legal to drive but be cognitively impaired”.
What is drink driving? Ask the person on the street and they’ll probably say someone who’s over the drink drive limit, which is a perfectly reasonable answer.
But what if that person were legal to drive, yet at the same time 13 times more likely to be in a fatal accident than when sober? I wouldn’t want to share the road with that driver and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland however, that is our reality… and 36% believe their ability to drive is only impaired if they are actually over the legal drink drive limit.
At 0.80 ‰ BAC (80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood) we have the joint highest legal limit in the developed world, far above the “point of intoxication” where measurable effects on cognitive function occur. It’s four times higher than many European countries (0.20 ‰ BAC) and 60% higher than the rest of Europe (0.50 ‰ BAC). I won’t even mention the European countries with a zero limit in this comparison.
We started so well… On 8 October 1967 in Shropshire, we were at the cutting edge of drink drive road safety. A man blew into a bag. He was the first person to have their breath alcohol level measured at the roadside. We set an example to the rest of the world to follow. We were world leaders, pushing the boundaries! I now fear we’re trailing behind. Badly.
Sure, we’ve seen great reductions in drink driving, although not for the last 10 years. However, the elephant in the road is the keystone of our drink drive law: a lax 1960s limit which was based on deficient scientific data to define what was “safe”. A limit which we now know means you can legally drive in England, Northern Ireland and Wales while 13 times more likely to have a fatal accident than when sober. (A study of 4,000 drink drive crashes; Drugs and Alcohol: Their Relative Crash Risk by Romano et al).
I acknowledge that drink drive deaths have reduced over the last 50 years. Much of which is down to breath testing, hard work from the Police, THINK! campaigns making it socially unacceptable to drink drive and cars which are exponentially safer. However, there is a hole in the data. What about those drivers who are impaired, but legally under the limit -referred to as “legal but lethal”? How many incidents could have been avoided if they were below the point of intoxication?
Many road safety professionals and policymakers share my point of view, but cannot get any limit change to be taken seriously due to three arguments.
- There is no point changing the limit unless we increase breath testing
- They’re worried about how it could affect rural pubs
- Scotland reduced its limit but drink driving casualties didn’t reduce
Point one does have some merit in a defeatist sort of way. Road policing is not going to increase for the foreseeable future; that’s a whole other argument. But changing the limit will help to remove the legal but lethal driver. It sets the nation’s expectation for road user behaviour and will influence the habits of many drivers who get behind the wheel after one, two or three drinks, impaired but legal. Please don’t use policing budgets as a reason not to make positive changes which ARE within your control but may be unpopular with some noisy quarters.
Regarding point two, research from Stirling University showed that lowering the Scottish limit had little to no impact on most pubs. However, the fact that a decision on the safety of you, me and our children should be influenced in any way by the economic impact for a rural pub selling a driver one small alcoholic drink instead of two or three is quite shocking. Could you explain this reasoning to someone with life changing injuries?
The third point is an interesting one. Looking at the headline figures, you would agree. But dig deeper and I’d argue that it made two significant differences.
First, where we did see a difference was behavioural change. In 2017, AlcoSense surveyed 1,000 drivers in Scotland and found that three years after lowering the limit (from 0.80 ‰ BAC to 0.50 ‰ BAC) a massive 84% of Scottish drivers would now not drive if they thought they had ANY alcohol in their system, compared to only 70% of English drivers. There are 35.9 million licence holders in England, so if the same change in behaviour happened in England that equates to the removal of five million legal but lethal drivers from our roads every year. The official statistics don’t measure behaviour change, but that’s a massive step forward in taking impaired drivers off the road.
Second, going from 0.80 ‰ to 0.50 ‰ isn’t an extreme change in terms of numbers, but based on the Romano Study mentioned earlier it reduces the likelihood of being involved in a fatal accident from 13 times greater than sober, to five times greater. Again, a by-product of the limit change but a very positive one.
So, what do I think the limit should be?
0.20 ‰ BAC.
It’s low enough so that someone can have a small drink with a meal in a restaurant. It’s below the point of intoxication, which is generally accepted to be around 0.30 ‰ BAC. It also gives a “buffer” against contaminants which could, on very rare occasions, give a low level false positive on some breathalysers. It’s a “safe” and practical limit to Police. With the right education around it, I feel a majority of road users would support it.
I’m acutely aware that some people who don’t really know me or my company may misunderstand and think my opinion is hypocritical. I own AlcoSense Laboratories which makes breathalysers for both professional and consumer use. Some people think this enables drivers to “drink up to the limit”, but apart from being almost impossible to use a breathalyser that way due to human biology, we actually do the opposite. Focussed on the “morning after”, our mission is to give people the tools to make informed decisions about when they’re clear of alcohol, rather than relying on potentially fatal guesswork. To support this, 93% of our users exclusively use their breathalyser the next day.
I’ll leave you with a question to consider… In this day and age, is there any excuse for us to have a drink drive limit so high that it’s legal to drive but be cognitively impaired?
Personally, I think not.
Hunter Abbott is managing director of AlcoSense Laboratories, manufacturers of the market-leading range of AlcoSense personal breathalysers, and is also a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS).
Learn more about drink driving
The Road Safety GB Academy runs an online Impairment E-learning Course.
The course deals with impairment and provides road safety practitioners with an increased knowledge and awareness of how alcohol, cannabis and cocaine impact on road user behaviour, together with the legal implications of using such substances in the road safety context.