Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report



  31.    About 14 per cent of fatal accidents per year in Great Britain involve drivers with illegal levels of alcohol[8], of which about half involve a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) above 150mg/100ml (Q 271) and 29 per cent involve drivers aged between 20 and 24 years[9]. While the 14 per cent is a significant proportion, 86 per cent of accidents do not involve a BAC above the legal limit. Other than alcohol, major contributory factors to accidents include a failure to judge another person's path or speed; careless, thoughtless or reckless behaviour; and inattention[10]. Statistically, any accident involving a driver with an illegal BAC level is recorded as an alcohol-related accident, irrespective of how the accident was caused. The British Medical Association (BMA) suggested that, because alcohol impairs driving functions, it is safe to assume that any accident-involved driver with an illegal BAC contributed to the cause of that accident (Q 93).

Driving and drugs other than alcohol

  32.    Both the Minister and Dr Sherwood, Department of Psychology, Reading University, suggested that there was a lack of hard evidence on the size of the problem of drugs and driving. Dr Sherwood suggested that the problem of driving under the influence of drugs involved both illicit and prescription drugs-the most common compounds being cannabis and benzodiazepine tranquillisers. Some prescription drugs were used illicitly and the motive for drug use was important (Q 147). Within a few weeks the patient can adapt to the side effects of many prescription drugs which may impair driving skills. Furthermore, there was little research into the mitigating effect of prescription drugs on the original condition which may of itself render the driver unfit (Q 149).

  33.    The Minister stated that around 17 per cent of drivers killed in accidents showed evidence of cannabis taking, although cannabis could be traced up to four weeks after taking the substance and "it is pretty unlikely that four weeks after taking cannabis it is having a significant effect on your driving ability" (Q 265). Superintendent Rowe, Police National Drink Driving Liaison Officer, suggested that although the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) is currently conducting a study into fatal accident casualties it is still not possible to estimate the true size of the problem. "All that research is telling us is the levels of drugs in those casualties. What it does not tell us is what is their risk of having an accident or indeed whether those drugs caused the accident" (Q 223).

  34.    Commissioner Kinnock said that it was difficult to obtain reliable statistics on the size of the drugs driving problem. Mr Laurell, Swedish National Road Administration, said that in Sweden, "the only thing we can say with any certainty is that alcohol is by far still the worst problem" (Q 376). A Belgian study[11] estimated that in 1995-96, 19 per cent of drivers killed in accidents were under the influence of illicit drugs or medicines. In eastern France, 14 per cent of drivers killed or injured were found to be under the influence of cannabis (Q 301). Under the Fourth Framework Programme, the Community is conducting research into appropriate breathalyser equivalent technology for detecting those driving under the influence of drugs.


  35.    The law in the United Kingdom prescribes a minimum period of 12 months disqualification for a first drink driving offence[12], and of three years for any subsequent offence of that kind within 10 years[13]. The current maximum penalties for a drink driving offence are six months imprisonment and a fine of £5,000. The courts have wide discretion as to the level of fines and prison sentences. In England and Wales, the Magistrates' Association issue Sentencing Guidelines for magistrates[14]. These guidelines suggest an increasing level of fine and period of disqualification with increasing BAC. Furthermore, they suggest that magistrates consider community service penalties for offences above 196mg/100ml and custody for offences above 265mg/100ml.

  36.    Across other Member States, penalties for driving with a BAC above the permitted level vary widely. Sweden has among the harshest penalties. For an offence involving a BAC above 100mg/100ml, "gross drunk driving", the maximum penalty is a two year prison sentence or electronic surveillance, rising to a maximum of six years if the offence involves injury or death or is a second offence (QQ 348-359). In Belgium, however, the penalty for driving with a BAC between 50mg and 80mg/100ml is suspension from driving for three hours. "It is a sort of `sin bin' approach" (Q 7).

Penalties for offences within the 50-80mg/100ml range

  37.    The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) considered that the severe penalties currently imposed in Britain on conviction is one of the reasons for the success of the anti drink driving campaign (p 113). The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) suggested that the current minimum penalties should continue to apply even if the permitted BAC were lowered to 50mg/100ml (Q 70). The Automobile Association (AA) reported that their members shared ACPO's view (p 103).

  38.    Other witnesses proposed a shorter period of licence disqualification. IAS recognised that penalties should have public acceptance and be perceived by them as proportional to the offence and considered that this would "clearly be less out of step with existing and planned regimes in other EU countries" (p 114). The Campaign Against Drinking and Driving (CADD) suggested a sliding scale starting at nine months disqualification (p 110). The Portman Group suggested that maintaining the same penalties for a lower limit risked "a public backlash" and cited evidence from Scandinavia where lower limits were at first linked to draconian penalties which had to be reduced in order to achieve proportionality with other offences (pp 117-8).

Tiered limits with differing penalties

  39.    Mr Laurell stated that Sweden operates a two-tier system of "drunk driving" at 20mg/100ml and "gross drunk driving" at 100mg/100ml, with harsher penalties for the latter offence (QQ 348-359). Dr Nickel, Director, Medical-Psychological Institute, TÜV Munich, Germany, described the three-tiered system currently operating in Germany: an overall valid limit of 30mg/100ml[15]; an 80mg/100ml limit with administrative penalties; and a higher limit of 110mg/100ml with criminal penalties (QQ 400-409). Tiered systems also operate in France, Belgium and Greece (Q 291). The Minister said, however, that there is no question of the Government advocating or proposing a two-tier system of penalties (Q 261). Superintendent Rowe suggested that a tiered penalty system would devalue the seriousness associated with this type of criminal offence (Q 222).

Vehicle forfeiture

  40.    ACPO suggested that the wider use of existing powers of vehicle seizure and disposal would provide a "very effective deterrent" (Q 67). Superintendent Rowe was in favour of greater use of vehicle forfeiture for high level and repeat offenders (Q 237).

Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Devices (BAIIDs)

  41.    Several witnesses raised the issue of BAIIDs in the context of penalties (QQ 40, 243). BAIIDs are devices fitted to a vehicle which require the driver to provide a sample of breath containing a level of alcohol below a pre-set limit before the vehicle may be started. In some jurisdictions, largely in North America, offenders are required to have them fitted to their vehicle for a prescribed period as a condition of the return of their driving licence.

High Risk Offenders

  42.    The High Risk Offender (HRO) Scheme was first introduced in May 1983 to cover drivers convicted twice within ten years of either having a BAC in excess of 200mg/100ml and or refusing without reasonable excuse to provide an evidential specimen. In 1990, the criteria were widened to cover drivers who were convicted of: having a BAC in excess of 200mg/100ml; refusing without reasonable excuse to provide an evidential specimen; or two offences involving BACs in excess of 80mg/100ml within a ten year period. To regain their licences at the end of their period of disqualification, HROs must undergo a medical assessment to demonstrate with reasonable certainty that they are not alcohol abusers.

  43.    Dr Major, Medical Adviser, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), reported that in 1995, about 35 per cent of drink driving offenders in Great Britain were classed as HROs. There are at any one time approximately 85,000 disqualified drivers within the HRO scheme. About 33,000 drivers reach the end of their HRO disqualification period each year and a similar number join the scheme (Q 172). To regain their licence, drivers with a clear history of alcohol dependency must show a one-year period free of alcohol-related problems. Drivers who are clearly problem drinkers, but not alcohol dependent, must show evidence of at least six months moderated intake (Q 173). In 1996-97, only three per cent of applicants were refused a licence after HRO assessment because of evidence of persistent alcohol misuse or dependency and seven per cent were issued with a licence subject to regular review. The remaining 90 per cent were reissued with a licence to the age of 70 (QQ 172-4).

  44.    Dr Major described some of the problems associated with the HRO Scheme. Offenders are warned on what date they are to be medically assessed and therefore have time to modify their drinking habits. The DVLA, when considering applications for the restoration of the licence, needs to have a "very robust level of diagnosis" which will stand up to examination in court[16]. As a result, Dr Major considered that more HROs should have had their licence refused or at least restricted (Q 174). "We are fairly sure that we are missing a lot of people." Between two and five per cent of HRO drivers are "slipping through the net". Dr Major also suggested that the effectiveness of the HRO Scheme could be improved by doing the assessment at a different time-nearer to the index event-and over a period of time so that a trend in drinking habits could be established (QQ 172-179).

  45.    DETR admitted that the problem with the HRO Scheme is that "we have not addressed our minds recently to what we are really trying to achieve". The options include trying to screen out drivers who are medically unfit to drive or those who habitually drink too much and then drive. The relationship between the HRO Scheme and the Rehabilitation Scheme[17] requires further thought (Q 262). There is a need to develop measures aimed at people who have an alcohol problem and then drive (Q 12).

  46.    The Minister stated that about half of the 90,000 people convicted annually for drink driving had a BAC over 150mg/100ml (Q 271). IAS suggested that if the legal limit were reduced to 50mg/100ml one option would be "to require all drivers above 80mg/100ml to undergo some form of medical screening and/or to attend (at their own expense) a drink drive education programme before their driving licence is returned" (p 114). Dr Major pointed out that a lowering of the HRO threshold would pose a problem for DVLA because of the likelihood of an increased number of cases (Q 182).

HRO schemes in other jurisdictions

  47.    Commissioner Kinnock said that there were few schemes similar to the HRO Scheme operating in Member States (Q 306). Mr Laurell explained that, in Sweden, offenders with a BAC above 100mg/100ml are required to undertake a relicensing assessment for alcohol dependency involving a series of consultations over three to six months with a specialist physician or psychiatrist (Q 361). If the results of the consultations are acceptable, then the driver will be given a conditional licence valid for 18 months during which further consultations must take place to ensure that no relapse has occurred (Q 363).

  48.    Dr Nickel explained that under the German system of Medical-Psychological Assessment, offenders with a BAC at or above 160mg/100ml or offenders who commit two drink driving offences with BACs above 80mg/100ml within 10 years are required to undergo an assessment prior to reapplying for their licence (Q 417)[18]. The assessment, which lasts three to four hours, is undertaken jointly by a doctor and a psychologist. It costs the offender DM600-750 (approximately £200-250). The offender decides whether or not to submit the report of the assessment to the authorities and apply for his licence (Q 419).

  49.    Dr Nickel noted that only 28 per cent of those assessed were considered eligible for licence reinstatement without treatment; 31 per cent were considered eligible to join an alcohol treatment programme; and the remainder were adjudged negative (Q 424). Recidivism rates for drivers adjudged negative was about twice that for the other two groups (p 98).

  50.    Dr Major reported that, in 1996-97, some 14 per cent of drivers eligible to reapply for their licence did not do so (Q 172). In Sweden between 30 and 40 per cent of drivers who lose their licence for drunk driving never reapply for their licence and therefore do not undertake the relicensing assessment (Q 368). Mr Laurell commented that it is "safe to assume that most of them drive sometimes anyway" (Q 368).


  51.    Police powers to enforce drink driving legislation vary widely between jurisdictions. In the United Kingdom and Germany, for example, the police officer must have "reasonable suspicion" that the driver has been drinking before requiring a breath test. In other jurisdictions random breath testing[19] (used in most Australian States) and road blocks[20] (used in France and elsewhere) provide the police with the ability to breath test drivers without prior suspicion but under "controlled conditions". All jurisdictions that currently have a legal limit at or below 50mg/100ml give their police much greater overt powers to stop and breath test drivers than are currently available to British police[21].

  52.    The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) proposed that a "`new' power be introduced to enable an Officer in uniform to stop any vehicle at random and thereafter breath test the driver" (p 120). Superintendent Rowe further suggested that enshrining in legislation the case law established by Chief Constable of Gwent v Dash[22] would clarify the considerable confusion surrounding existing police powers and procedures (QQ 209-210). The Minister, however, did not consider confusion over police powers to be a major problem. Under current legislation, the police manage to decide "fairly easily" whether a breath test would be justified (Q 258).

Random Breath Testing (RBT)

  53.    The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), "a long-time supporter of RBT", proposed that a general power be made available to the police to stop and breathalyse drivers, supported by guidance from the Home Office (p 22). The BMA felt that the police required extra powers and that their personal preference was for RBT (Q 102). The key issue, however, is which method would be most likely to pick up the persistent drink drive offender (Q 106).

  54.    ACPO stated that they were not seeking RBT (Q 47). Superintendent Rowe said that the police do not want and, in his view, do not need RBT (Q 207). The Home Office viewed RBT as a broad and blunt weapon that may not necessarily be the best use of scarce resources (Q 31).

Unfettered discretion[23] to breathalyse

  55.    Both the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and CADD supported the introduction of unfettered discretion which they considered would be more effective than RBT (Q 116, p 109). ACPO would like to see a general provision for police officers to be able to administer a breath test unfettered by the current restrictions enabling them to target specific locations which intelligence had shown to be associated with drink drivers (QQ 46, 48). This would ensure the more effective and efficient use of current resources and would have a "dramatic effect" on the number of road collisions (Q 56).

Evidential roadside breath testing

  56.    Evidential breath testing was introduced in Great Britain in 1983. As a result, the number of roadside screening tests increased substantially. Superintendent Rowe suggested that the new generation of evidential breath testing equipment should be deployed with the aim of "moving away, not entirely, from testing in the police station to evidential testing at the roadside." This equipment could be available in the very near future (QQ 212, 215). ACPO stated that evidential roadside testing would result in considerable resource savings and thereby increase effectiveness (Q 84).

Need for public acceptance

  57.    The Home Office stressed that "enforcement is not just about catching offenders. It is part of a package to try and get compliance from members of the public" (Q 23). DETR suggested that a balance must be struck between harsh enforcement and commanding public support. If it is too harsh, there will be a public reaction to it (Q 28). RoSPA said that the public need to be made aware of any extra powers given to the police (Q 127).

Police priorities

  58.    Several witnesses proposed that road safety should be made a national police priority (p 120, QQ 86, 97). "To put the matter starkly, for every one person murdered, six are killed on our roads" (PACTS, p 22).

Enforcing a lower limit

  59.    IAS cited research findings from the United States showing the difficulties of detecting drivers with low BACs simply by observation. If a drinking driver is not tested, then they will "learn exactly the wrong lesson-that they can `get away with it'" (p 113). "A low legal limit which is not adequately enforced is likely to be less effective in reducing casualties than a higher limit that is effectively enforced" (p 112).

8   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1997). Road Accidents Great Britain 1996: The Casualty Report. London: TSO. Back

9   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998). Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps-A Consultation Paper. London: TSO. Back

10   Broughton J, Markey K A and Rowe D (1996). A new system for recording contributory factors in road accidents. TRL Unpublished Project Report PR/SE229/96. Back

11   Belgian Toxicology and Trauma Study, 1995-96. Back

12   By drink driving offence, the Committee means the offence of driving or attempting to drive when unfit to drive through drink and driving or attempting to drive with excess alcohol in breath, blood or urine (Road Traffic Act 1988 Sections 4(1) and 5(1)(a) respectively). There are other drink related offences, including sections 3A, 4(2), 5(1)(b), 6 and 7. Back

13   Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. That Act gives courts a limited discretion for "special reasons" not to disqualify a person or to impose a lesser period but in practice they rarely do this. Back

14   The Magistrates' Association (1997). Sentencing guidelines. London: TMA. Back

15   The 30mg/100ml limit applies in the event of an accident causing damage of over DM3,000 or in the event of the injury or fatality of another driver (Q 406). Back

16   Road Traffic Act 1988, section 92. The DVLA must show evidence of a relevant disability before refusing to restore the licence to the HRO. Back

17   Rehabilitation courses have been operating experimentally since 1993. The courses focus on the need to separate drinking from driving. Early indications of its success have prompted the Government to extend the scheme. Back

18   Refusing to provide an evidential specimen is not an offence in Germany as the police have the power to obtain a blood sample by force if necessary (Q 398). Back

19   Under random breath testing, drivers are, in theory at least, selected in a random or quasi-random fashion from the traffic stream and all drivers selected are tested. The word random, therefore, relates only to the selection of drivers from the passing traffic. It does not refer to the location of the checkpoint or to the time of day or day of week when it is held. Back

20   With road blocks, the police tend to pre-select drivers from the traffic stream (for example on the basis of their behaviour, the condition of the vehicle, the age of the driver). Not all selected drivers may be breath tested. Back

21   Clayton, A B (1997). Which way forward? London: The Portman Group. Back

22   Chief Constable of Gwent v Dash [1986] RTR 41, [1985] Crim LR 674, on appeal held that the random stopping of a driver to ascertain whether it is justifiable to administer a breath test does not amount to malpractice unless the police action is oppressive, capricious or opprobrious. Back

23   Unfettered discretion would mean that a police officer might require a driver to provide a breath test on a road at any time. Back

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