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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21st January 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Drink Driving: Statistics

Lord Geddes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many motorists (a) were breathalysed and (b) failed such test in the pre-Christmas period in each of the last five years (including 1997); and whether they consider that the 1997 drink/drive video was effective.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, Home Office figures, which are published on a monthly basis for England and Wales, show that in December 1993 105,800 motorists were breathalysed and 8,500 were positive or refused to provide a sample. In 1994 the figures were 129,100 and 8,700. In 1995 they were 141,400 and 8,900; and in 1996 they were 146,100 and 9,600. I will send the noble Lord a copy of the 1997 statistical bulletin when it is published.

The only figures already available for 1997 are those collected by the police for the period 18th December to 2nd January. They relate to breath tests after collisions rather than all breath tests and are not directly comparable. These show that 15,455 tests were carried out, of which 1,430 were positive.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions measures carefully the effectiveness of its public education campaigns in terms of awareness and attitude changes. The evidence of independent research is that this campaign is effective.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive Answer and I look forward to receiving the statistics for 1997. It is a pity that one cannot conduct a hands-up poll in your Lordships' House as to how many Members saw the video before Christmas. The straw poll that I have taken shows that remarkably few did. Does the Minister agree that one of the most serious groups of drink-driving offenders is that of those technically called high risk offenders--HROs? On the latest evidence they comprise more than 50 per cent. of the drivers who had such accidents. Does she consider that next year's campaign should be directed at that category of persons rather than at the admirable slogan, "No drink for the road"?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am not sure what a hands-up poll in your Lordships' House would achieve. As the noble Lord pointed out, it is important that we focus the campaign at those most at risk of irresponsible behaviour, and I do not imagine that that would include

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Members of your Lordships' House. However, we conducted independent research using a representative sample of 2,000 adults in Great Britain. It showed that 90 per cent. of all drivers were aware of the December television advertising. The point that I found particularly important was that among male drivers the recognition that any amount of alcohol impaired their driving ability rose by 6 per cent. between November and January. I take the noble Lord's point that it is important that we target those drivers who habitually drive with large amounts of alcohol in their systems, but it is also important that people recognise that any alcohol impairs driving ability.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, does my friend realise how much those of us who have an interest in road safety appreciate the genuine interest which she personally shows in the problem? Does she agree that it might be helpful to publish as soon as possible a consultation paper which would include a proposal for a reduction in the blood-alcohol limit?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we have made clear that we intend to consult on the proposal that has been made and widely supported by organisations such as the BMA and ACPO that the blood-alcohol level should be reduced. However, it is important that we consult on a range of measures which tackle the problem in the round and that we do not look only at the issue of blood-alcohol levels.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, from the figures that she has given, one can make the realistic assumption that the more stopping the police do, the more catching they will achieve and therefore the less damage will be done on the roads? Are not enforcement, the stopping and penalties at least as important as reducing the alcohol limit?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, there is a package of measures which are and have been effective during the past 30 years in reducing the incidence of drink-driving and the accidents which result. We must look at enforcement, because that is a severe deterrent; we must look at penalties, because the range is important; and we must look at education and the change in general social attitudes which influence the behaviour of individual drivers. We must also look at the legislative framework. I do not believe that one can separate out one element of that list.

Lord McNally: My Lords, if the thrust of the pre-Christmas campaign was that drivers consistently misjudged their capacity in relation to drinking and driving, and if the Minister is right that any alcohol impairs driving, would it not be logical to ban drinking and driving and to introduce a zero alcohol limit?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I know that there is a strength of feeling that we should be considering a zero limit. The message has always been that the only way to be certain that one's driving is not impaired by alcohol is not to drink and drive. However, there are

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problems with a zero alcohol limit in terms of the natural fermentation which occurs in the body regardless of whether any alcohol has been consumed. Sweden has an alcohol limit of 20 milligrams, but, basically, 50 milligrams is the level to which it is suggested we should reduce and it is the level at which impairment is twice that of driving without alcohol.

Lord Parry: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, contrary to public opinion, there are figures and evidence to show that the younger generation has responded more realistically to the education which has been on offer and that it is less likely for a younger person to drive when influenced by alcohol than it is for those in the average age group in your Lordships' House?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I can confirm that the generation who are becoming drivers now are much more aware of the dangers of combining drink and driving than was my generation when I and other Members of your Lordships' House started to drive. However, I should point out that drink-driving among young men in particular is a major problem because they are a group of drivers who tend to have more accidents anyway and because they are more adversely affected than older people by any given amount of alcohol. Therefore, we must not neglect young people in this matter.

Lord Monson: My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that research in Britain and America indicates that, compared with drink-driving, far more accidents are caused by perfectly sober drivers who have had insufficient sleep the previous night and therefore doze off at the wheel? Because that is an offence which is almost impossible to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, it does not show up in the official statistics.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I would not diminish the importance of driver fatigue as an issue in road safety. It is an area in which we must educate people and make sure that we take measures. However, the position remains that one in seven accidents involves drivers who are above current legal limits. We know from prosecutions of cases of causing death by careless driving that a number of the drivers concerned have been impaired by alcohol at levels below the current level.

Train Overcrowding

2.45 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that overcrowding on Connex South Eastern trains does not pose a threat to public safety.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am advised that the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate does

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not consider that passenger overcrowding on Connex South Eastern trains causes any additional safety risks to passengers using those services.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. As the Minister of Transport has said that penalties for poor performance are still unsatisfactory, what will the Government now do to tighten regulations in relation to shortened trains as fines, insignificant against the public subsidy that is received, are clearly having no effect on Connex South Eastern?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we have made it clear that we shall not accept poor performance by train operators. We expect those poor performers to take immediate steps to improve their performance to satisfactory levels. As the House is aware, we are conducting a review of railway regulation. The Government's overriding goal is to win more passengers and freight on to the railways. That will be achieved only if there is a high quality service which meets passenger expectations. That must apply to areas such as gross overcrowding.

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