Drink and drug driving: the challenges ahead

Robert Gifford, executive director, Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, discusses one of the biggest contributions to road deaths in Great Britain

Although we have made good progress in cutting the number of drink-drive deaths, 17 per cent of road deaths in 2008 involved alcohol. As the government prepares its new strategy for continued focus on cutting road casualties beyond 2010, it is time to think about what further measures we can take to reduce this number.
In December last year, the government asked Sir Peter North to review the position on drink and drug driving and to report to Ministers by the end of March. His report will clearly play a significant part in the section of the strategy concerned with driving while impaired. The disadvantage of his report, however, is the timing of its publication, as we are now at the start of an election campaign. As a result, we are unlikely to see any progress until well after the General Election.
Sir Peter is well known in road safety circles. He led the Review of Road Traffic Law in the 1980s. Through his review, the offences involving loss of life were re-defined. The resulting charge of causing death by dangerous driving was introduced into legislation through the 1991 Road Traffic Act alongside other changes that focused on educational interventions to improve driver behaviour such as Driver Improvement Courses.

Reducing the limit
What can we expect to emerge from Sir Peter’s review? My hope is that, on one aspect at least, we will get a clear recommendation: that the current drink-drive limit should be reduced from 80 to 50.
Why is this so important? For me, there are two clear reasons. First, it is based on proven scientific evidence. The Grand Rapids Study showed very clearly that accident risk increases once the Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) of a driver is over 50. Setting the limit at this level would be based on sound and undisputed science. Secondly, it would send a clear message to drivers that drinking and driving do not mix. Too many at the moment get confused by what a limit of 80 means: is that one drink or two? How long should I leave between drinks? A limit of 50 would make it clear that such calculations would be well nigh impossible.
A new lower limit would also save lives. In 1998, when the government was last considering a lower limit, it estimated that 50 lives would be saved through this. When PACTS revisited the figures and methodology in 2005, Professor Richard Allsop revised the figure to around 65 lives. So a lower limit would lead to between 50 and 65 people staying alive – an easy win for public safety.
A lower limit is certainly one aspect that Sir Peter has been asked to consider. One other issue that may emerge is the need for greater consistency across the transport modes. Why is the limit 20 (i.e. zero) for airline pilots and 80 for coach drivers? Surely anyone involved in the safe carriage of the general public should be subject to the same rules? And is there a case for a lower limit for newly qualified drivers in the first two years of holding a licence?

Enforcing the law
Two other issues accompany the need for a lower limit: consistent enforcement and appropriate penalties. On enforcement, the evidence is clear that the more breath tests conducted, the fewer the number of casualties. Targeted breath testing and clarity over the police power to stop a driver will be important to send a clear message to road users: if you drink, you are more likely to be stopped.
Just under 90,000 drivers lose their licences every year because of drink-driving. The current punishment is a ban from driving for one year. This reflects the seriousness with which the courts view this offence. It also enables Ministers to state that although we have a higher BAC than the rest of mainland Europe, we have a tougher enforcement regime. I am sure that Sir Peter will be thinking carefully about the argument for maintaining the current punishment for those caught at a new and lower limit. There is a very strong case for keeping the penalty the same: it maintains clarity and reminds drivers about the responsibility that they take when getting behind the wheel of the car.
The other aspect of Sir Peter’s review is more complicated: the answers are not so clear-cut when it comes to illegal drugs and driving. I don’t think that anyone would deny that illegal drugs and driving is a problem. However, one difficulty is that we don’t know what the scale of the problem is.
In recent years, police have been trained in both drug recognition and field impairment testing. Although the latter may be a little rudimentary (touch the tip of your nose with your finger, ability to walk in a straight line), it does confirm a police officer’s view that the person stopped is actually physically impaired and that their driving ability is compromised. What you then require at the police station is confirmation from a medical view point that drugs are actually present in the bloodstream.

Roles to play
So, what I hope we will get from Sir Peter is a clear message that we need to simplify the position on drugs and driving. Let the police focus on identifying drivers committing traffic offences, on recognising the presence of drugs and on gathering the evidence for impairment. Then let us have a nurse’s confirmation of the presence of drugs in the driver’s body. That approach continues the link between drug driving and accident risk. The presence of illegal drugs alone is not a road traffic offence. It becomes so if impairment occurs and an accident is more likely as a result.
There is one further aspect to consider: the role of employers in reducing drink and drug driving. So far, I have emphasised the responsibility of the individual. However, good employers also have very clear work-related driving policies making clear that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is unacceptable and likely to result in a disciplinary offence. The responsibility of the employer in developing safe systems at work cannot be underestimated.
Road deaths involving alcohol and drugs are preventable events. Sir Peter North’s review will help to shape further action in this area. Although the review may not be put into immediate effect, it will clearly make an important contribution to the next road safety strategy.

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