Drink and drug driving law - Transport Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1. The introduction of a legal limit on the level of alcohol in a driver's blood supply in 1967 was a milestone in the history of road safety policy. The legislation also gave police officers the ability to enforce the new law through the introduction of the preliminary breath test (more commonly known as the 'breathalyser'). That year there were 1,640 deaths associated with drink-driving, nearly a quarter (22%) of the total of 7,319 road deaths. Since then, social attitudes and cultural norms about drinking and driving have changed markedly. High-profile advertising campaigns, combined with measures by the pub, restaurant and hospitality industries, have raised public awareness about the risks of drink driving. Police enforcement strategies, developments in technology and effective enforcement of heavy penalties helped increase the number of successful drink driving prosecutions. There has been a reduction in the number of drink-driving deaths since the late 1960s. In 2008 there were 400 drink driving deaths (16% of the total of 2,538 road deaths), less than a quarter of the number in 1967.[1] Given that motor vehicle traffic has trebled during this period, the drink driving regime—and road safety generally—can be considered as areas of public policy success.

2. Yet drink driving is a preventable activity and the number of deaths it causes on our roads remains high. On average, at least one person dies every day when a driver of a vehicle has consumed more alcohol than legally permitted. In many cases the drunk-driver is killed, a sad and avoidable waste of life in itself. But drink driving also causes untold sadness for families and loved ones. Too often, we hear tragic news of innocent people—other road users, accompanying passengers, pedestrians—killed or seriously injured in an accident involving somebody driving a motor vehicle whilst over the limit. Almost half (46%) of fatal drink drive accidents involve other vehicles and drivers who, themselves, were not over the limit. The Department for Transport has estimated that the prevention of those drink drive accidents which resulted in reported injuries in 2008 would have saved around £1.2 billion,[2] taking no account of those accidents that resulted in damage alone.

3. Whereas the development of drink driving policy has been helped by the considerable wealth of evidence accumulated on the subject over the past 50 years, the position with drug driving is very different. Indeed, in some ways, the current situation with drug driving mirrors that of drink driving in the mid-1960s. The evidence remains incomplete and inconclusive, partly because possessing and supplying controlled drugs is a criminal offence and partly because of a lack of domestic research on the issue. Enforcement of the law is difficult because police lack the ability to screen drivers for drug use. There have been few high-profile drug driving education or publicity campaigns. The number of successful prosecutions remains low.

4. The available casualty data suggests that there were 56 fatal accidents in 2008 in which impairment by legal or illegal drugs was judged by the police to be a contributory factor. Yet one in ten 16-59 year olds admitted to using illicit drugs in 2008-09 and the limited evidence available suggests that 11% of the driving population may have driven at some time whilst under the influence of illicit drugs. It is reasonable to suspect that the official data on drug driving tell only part of the story.

The North Report

5. In December 2009 the previous Government appointed Sir Peter North CBE QC to conduct an independent review of the law on drink and drug driving in Great Britain.[3] As part of this, Sir Peter was asked to consider the case for changing the prescribed alcohol limit for driving either by reducing the current limit, or adding a new lower limit with an associated revised penalty regime. He was also asked to consider the case for new drug driving legislation. His final report, published in June 2010, contained 28 recommendations relating to drink driving and 23 to drug driving. The Government will publish its response by the end of 2010.

Our inquiry

6. We announced our inquiry into drink and drug driving law on 22 July 2010. Our inquiry focussed on the North Review's more high-profile, and controversial, recommendations, including the proposals:

  • to reduce the current prescribed blood alcohol limit from 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood to 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood;
  • to retain the current penalty of 12-month mandatory disqualification at the new lower blood alcohol limit;
  • to provide the police with a general and unrestricted power to require anyone who is driving a motor vehicle to cooperate with a preliminary breath test;
  • to take steps for the earliest practicable type approval and supply to police stations of preliminary drug screening devices, to be achieved within two years;
  • for the Government actively to pursue research to determine the levels of active and impairing metabolites of eight categories of controlled drugs[4] in order to set prescribed levels for such drugs in legislation and to introduce a new offence to make it unlawful to drive with any of the listed drugs in the body in excess of the prescribed level, and
  • to allow nurses to take on the role currently fulfilled by forensic physicians in determining whether a drug driving suspect has 'a condition which might be due to a drug'.

7. The Committee received 42 memoranda in response to the announcement of the inquiry. We also took oral evidence on 14 September and 12 October from a wide range of individuals and groups, including road user and road safety groups, police representatives, medical and academic experts, pub, restaurant and hospitality industry representatives, drug testing companies, and Sir Peter North himself. We are grateful to all those who submitted evidence, whether oral or written. We decided not to take oral evidence from the relevant Government minister because the Department for Transport was preparing its formal response to the North Review. However, we wrote to the Department on 19 October seeking further information on issues raised by witnesses during the inquiry and we are grateful for the Department's response.[5]

1   Provisional estimates for 2009 show drink drive fatalities fell by 5% to 380. Department for Transport, Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain: 2009 provisional estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels, August 2010. Back

2   For example, through loss of output due to injury and NHS costs. Based on provisional drink drive estimates in 2008. Back

3   Great Britain is the jurisdiction to which the relevant law on drink driving and drug driving currently applies. Road safety in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. Back

4   Opiates; amphetamines; methamphetamines; cocaine; benzodiazepines; cannabinoids; methadone; ecstasy (MDMA). Back

5   Ev 99 Back

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Prepared 2 December 2010