Select Committee on European Scrutiny Ninth Report


COM(00) 4397

Commission recommendation on the maximum permitted blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers of motorised vehicles.

Legal base:
Document originated: 17 January 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 19 January 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 26 February 2001
Department: Environment, Transport and the Regions
Basis of consideration: EM of 19 March 2001
Previous Committee Report: None; but see (21125) 7014/00: HC 23-xvii (1999-2000), paragraph 4 (17 May 2000) and HC 23-xxii (1999-2000), paragraph 7 (21 June 2000)
To be discussed in Council: April 2001
Committee's assessment: Legally and politically important
Committee's decision: Not cleared; further information requested


  2.1  For a number of years, the Commission has pressed for a more harmonised regime of legal maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) limits as part of any national and European action to reduce inappropriate drink driving. For example, in 1988 the Commission proposed a Directive to harmonise maximum BAC levels at 0.5 milligrammes per milliltre (mg/ml) throughout the Community.[13] This proposal was not adopted because a number of Member States objected on the grounds of subsidiarity. In July 1999, the Transport Committee of the European Parliament decided not to reconfirm its first reading of the 1988 Directive and requested that a new proposal be drawn up based on the experience of different measures. Rather than renew the original proposal, the Commission now proposes a Recommendation that sets out its views on a range of actions relating to inappropriate drink driving.[14]

  2.2  The efforts to reduce drink driving are part of a wider approach by the Commission to improve transport safety generally, and road safety in particular. Article 71 (1) of the Treaty on European Union requires that the common transport policy in the EU include measures to improve transport safety. In April 1997 the Commission adopted a programme of general measures on road safety. The priorities for the programme were set out in a Communication adopted on 17 March 2000. The Communication refers to the effectiveness of reducing inappropriate drinking and driving as a way of reducing road accidents and casualties. When we reported on it on 17 May 2000, we noted that the Commission had decided to shelve the proposal for a maximum BAC limit of 0.5 mg/ml, but left the documents uncleared on the grounds that further information was required on the Government's position towards the Commission's recommendation on the costs and effects of road safety measures. The Minister also promised to provide views on the Commission's call for a 0.5mg/ml level. We subsequently cleared the document in our Report of 21 June 2000, after receiving a Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum, setting out the Government's position on the Commission's cost-benefit analysis.

The document

  2.3  The Commission Recommendation has no binding implications for Member States. It contains five specific recommendations:

    —  all Member States should adopt a legal maximum blood alcohol limit of 0.5 mg/ml or lower for drivers and riders of motor vehicles;

    —  a lower limit of 0.2 mg/ml should apply to inexperienced drivers, motorcyclists, drivers of buses and coaches and drivers of vehicles carrying dangerous goods;

    —  all Member States should adopt random breath testing;

    —  accuracy of breath-testing devices should be harmonised; and

    —  Member States and the Commission should collaborate in the fields of research and development, exchange of information and statistics, and publicity.

  2.4  The Commission notes that in some Member States it has been estimated that between 1% and 5% of drivers in traffic have BAC levels exceeding the national maximum level. Such drivers are proportionately more likely to be in involved in accidents, accounting for up to 20% of fatal and serious injuries, and up to 25% of driver fatalities. The Commission estimates that at least 10,000 road users die annually in road accidents in the EU involving inappropriate drinking and driving.

  2.5  The evidence of correlation between excessive BAC levels and involvement in accidents is so conclusive that all developed countries have policies to reduce inappropriate drink-driving as a key element in efforts to reduce the rate of accidents and casualties. These policies are normally based upon a mixture of BAC limits, police enforcement, publicity, rehabilitation of drink-drivers, and legal or administrative sanctions.

  2.6  In the Commission's view, a more uniform legal maximum BAC limit within the EU would have a number of advantages, including providing a clearer and more consistent message to drivers of passenger and freight vehicles that drinking above the standard reference level would be considered illegal and dangerous, regardless of the country.

  2.7  The Commission Recommendation notes that, from a road safety perspective, the ideal would be the total elimination of drink driving. However, it also notes that without public acceptance and credible enforcement, setting a BAC level that is too low would be ineffective. In the Commission's view there is public support for a lower BAC limit. The Commission recommends that:

    "On the basis of accumulative research evidence and analysis, the maximum BAC limit of 0.5 mg/ml, first proposed on 5 December 1988, should be the recommended maximum legal limit within the EU."

  2.8  The Commission believes that all Member States should adopt the maximum limit and then move towards even lower BAC limits. At present, ten Member States already have a national limit of 0.5 mg/ml whereas four (Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and UK) have BAC limits of 0.8 mg/ml.[15] Indeed, Italy, Luxembourg and UK have not reduced their limits since they were first introduced.

  2.9  Although the Commission recognises that it is difficult to assess the effect of reducing the BAC limit from 0.8 mg/ml to 0.5 mg/ml, it says that on balance the available evidence indicates that, with effective enforcement, there would be a reduction in casualties, especially among young male drinkers and hard-core problem drivers. The Commission notes that over the past two decades the UK has managed to reduce fatal accidents by 70%, despite not lowering the legal maximum BAC limit. This improvement in road safety in the UK is attributed to effective enforcement and publicity campaigns. However, the Commission believes that lowering the maximum BAC to 0.5 mg/ml in countries such as the UK could result in even fewer casualties. As a rough guide, the Commission estimates that if uniform BAC limits are enforced effectively, road fatalities could be reduced by 10%. This would represent a saving of about 1,000 lives annually, or 2½% of the total number of fatalities. Given that the Commission estimates that one road death has an economic cost of 1 million euros, the saving of 1,000 lives would represent a benefit of 1,000 million euros. The Commission also estimates that two-thirds of the lives saved are likely to be drivers over the BAC limit, with the remaining one-third comprising "sober" drivers and passengers.

  2.10  The Commission Recommendation does not consider whether driving under the influence of illegal drugs should be treated as a more serious offence than drink-driving. The Commission notes, however, that, when consumed on its own, the effect of cannabis on a driver is similar to that of a BAC level above 0.8 mg/ml. When cannabis and other drugs are combined with alcohol the effect is more severe. The effect of illegal drugs on drivers is dealt with in the EU action plan on drugs 2000-2004 and is the subject of further research. At this stage, the Recommendation simply calls upon Member States to exchange information.

— Regular random breath testing and its accuracy

  2.11  The Commission endorses the view that regular random breath testing would be a cost-effective deterrent to drink driving. Some Member States which use a BAC limit of 0.5 mg/ml also use a breath-equivalent measurement (BRAC) of 0.22 or 0.25 microgrammes of alcohol per millilitre of breath. However, as the Commission notes, the breath-testing devices currently on the market operate to varying degrees of accuracy. One potential problem with the harmonised BAC limits of 0.5 mg/ml and (for special categories) 0.2 mg/ml is that they make no allowance for any measurement errors. The Commission argues that the harmonised BAC or BRAC limits will be reinforced by setting measurement standards for the testing devices.

The Government view

  2.12  The Commission Recommendation will be discussed at the Transport Council in April with a view to agreeing a resolution in response. The Government points out that it has no binding implications for Member States. The Government gives no indication of its views on the specific proposals or analysis of the Commission Recommendation. The Explanatory Memorandum simply says that:

    "The Government will give further consideration to the proposals when they have been discussed by the Transport Council in April."


  2.13  Transport safety, including road safety, is an important issue. The United Kingdom is identified as one of the four countries likely to be most affected by some of the recommended measures, and although the Recommendation is not binding, its implications for road users in the United Kingdom are potentially significant.

  2.14  It is not unreasonable to expect the Government to provide a reasoned assessment of the case for or against the Commission Recommendation to reduce the legal maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) level in the United Kingdom. The proposal has been around for many years, and the Government presumably already has a view on the matter, which ought to have been included in the Explanatory Memorandum.

  2.15  We now request the Government to provide its reasoned response to each of the Recommendation's proposals and the underlying analysis, in time for us to provide a further report to the House, including an account of the Government's position, before the Transport Council in April. We also request the Government's views on the implications of the Recommendation as regards subsidiarity. In the meantime, we leave the document uncleared.

13  COM (88) 707. Back

14  The Commission does not intend to withdraw the original proposal, on the grounds that Member States may wish to re-activate it as a consequence of the Communication.  Back

15  Some countries apply a lower BAC limit for certain categories of drivers. For example, Spain has a BAC limit of 0.3 mg/ml for certain categories including inexperienced drivers and drivers of heavy goods vehicles and buses and drivers. Austria has a BAC limit of 0.1 mg/ml for similar categories. Back

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