Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report


  85.    This part sets out our main conclusions and recommendations in response to the draft Directive. The aim of the Commission proposal is to reduce the number of people killed and injured each year as a result of road accidents. In recent years, the number of people killed in Great Britain has come down to a plateau of about 540 per annum. Reducing the permitted BAC for drivers, either across the European Union or in a Member State, is only one of a number of countermeasures designed to target drink driving. We consider that a package of measures, rather than any single one, would be the most effective way to achieve the Commission's aim.

  86.    The evidence shows that there are two main identifiable sub-groups of drink drivers: those who drive with a BAC well in excess of the legal limit and new young drivers (see paragraph 31). We consider that drivers in these two categories are at the greatest risk of being involved in an accident involving illegal levels of alcohol. Our recommendations, therefore, are primarily targeted at these two groups.


  87.    In response to the original proposal in 1988, the Economic and Social Committee of the European Communities suggested that the Commission should "compile detailed statistics on the link between high blood alcohol concentrations and the number of accidents"[38]. Unfortunately, this has not been achieved on a European Union-wide scale. This is reflected by large differences in the estimates given by Member State governments of the percentage of fatal casualties each year resulting from road accidents involving illegal levels of alcohol[39]. Until there is conformity in statistical analysis within the European Union regarding accidents involving illegal levels of alcohol, an effective Union-wide solution may be impractical and indeed impossible.

  88.    As noted in paragraphs 27 and 31, approximately 14 per cent of road accident casualties each year in Great Britain involve illegal levels of alcohol. While this is a substantial figure, the Committee are concerned that the causes of the other 86 per cent were not identified. Furthermore, we are concerned that emphasis put on reducing the 14 per cent of drink driving fatalities in Great Britain is out of proportion to the effort put into reducing the other 86 per cent of fatal accidents.

Driving and drugs other than alcohol

  89.    Data on the problem of drugs is even more sparse. While drugs and driving are included in the Commission's road safety programme the Commission is unable to estimate of the size of the problem or the true impact of drugs on driving performance. This problem also exists in the United Kingdom. While it is an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988 to drive while being unfit through drugs[40], there is no equivalent research to that carried out for alcohol on the relative risk of accident involvement. There are complications involved in such research. Furthermore, the use of illicit and prescription drugs raises issues beyond road safety. Unlike alcohol, different drugs, either prescription or illicit, may have widely different effects on driving performance. The Committee are concerned that driving under the influence of drugs may be a significant factor in the number of road accidents. We, therefore, recommend that more research into the effects of drugs on driving performance is undertaken before policies to reduce the incidence of drugs driving can be devised.


  90.    The United Kingdom currently has one of the harshest sanctions for drink driving in the European Union or indeed in other jurisdictions outside the European Union, imposing a minimum licence suspension of 12 months[41] (see paragraphs 35-36). It also has one of the most effective records in reducing the incidence of drink driving. In our view, much of the progress made in the United Kingdom in reducing the number of casualties caused by drink driving annually is due to the stringent penalties imposed on those who disregard the law.

Penalties for 50-79mg/100ml and 80mg/100ml plus offences

  91.    There was some disagreement between the witnesses about what penalties should be applied if a lower limit of 50mg/100ml was introduced in the United Kingdom. The existing automatic 12 month licence suspension underlines the serious nature of a drink driving offence. In our view, lessening the penalty for any drink driving offence in the 50-79mg/100ml range could potentially devalue the seriousness of a drink driving offence in the eyes of the public. We therefore consider that, in the United Kingdom, there should be no reduction in the minimum disqualification period of 12 months, even if the permitted BAC level was reduced to 50mg/100ml.

Introducing a second-tier offence at 150mg

  92.    Over half those drivers in Great Britain prosecuted for drink driving have a BAC over 150mg/100ml. Several witnesses proposed the introduction of a tiered penalty system. While we agree with this sentiment, we note that magistrates' sentencing guidelines do effectively impose a tiered penalty system related to the driver's BAC. We recommend that, beyond the legal limit, a second-tier limit should be introduced at 150mg/100ml in the United Kingdom.

  93.    A limit of 150mg/100ml represents a BAC effectively twice the current permitted limit and three times the limit if the permitted BAC was lowered to 50mg/100ml. Introducing a more explicit tiered limit system with higher penalties for the higher offence would make it clear that the greater the offence, the harsher should be the punishment. Penalties can and do act as an important deterrent to potential drink drivers. We recommend that stiffer minimum penalties should apply for those driving in the United Kingdom with BACs in excess of 150mg/100ml.

  94.    Some witnesses were concerned that a tiered penalty system would devalue the offence of drink driving. This depends, however, on what the penalty for a first tier offence would be. If, as the Committee recommends, the minimum penalty for any drink driving offence in the United Kingdom was 12 months licence suspension then these concerns would be unfounded.

  95.    Courts in the United Kingdom currently have powers of vehicle seizure and forfeiture although they are rarely used (see paragraph 40). Several witnesses supported the wider use of vehicle forfeiture for persistent or high level offenders. We are concerned, however, that sanctions of vehicle forfeiture would involve potentially difficult questions of ownership, and might produce a public backlash if used too widely. In our view, the present United Kingdom practice should be continued, whereby, the sanction is available as a "last resort" measure.


  96.    At any one time there are about 85,000 disqualified drivers within the HRO Scheme in Great Britain (paragraph 43). We consider that offenders driving with a BAC substantially over the legal limit are the most dangerous sub-group of drink drive offenders. Although we support an increase in education about drink driving in general, we do not believe, on the evidence presented, that such a measure would be effective in changing the behaviour of those who show blatant disregard for both the law and the safety of others.

  97.    About 35 per cent of HROs in Great Britain, nearly 30,000 people, are drivers who have a repeat drink driving offence within ten years of their first offence. The Committee are seriously concerned that these recidivist drink drivers are not deterred, either by penalties or by education about the dangers of drink driving.

  98.    The Committee agrees with the evidence from Dr Major that the current HRO scheme in the United Kingdom could be greatly improved. Disqualified drivers under the scheme are given advance notice of when their medical examination will take place. We are concerned that this leaves the scheme open to abuse. We have recommended (paragraph 93) that in the United Kingdom there should be a second-tier limit of 150mg/100ml and we further recommend that the level at which a driver is classified an HRO should be lowered from 200mg to 150mg/100ml and that the other two criteria should remain unchanged (paragraph 42). We also consider that this classification should be independent of whether the permitted BAC is 80mg or 50mg/100ml. The Committee notes concerns expressed by Dr Major that such a measure would both increase the cost of the scheme and the number of drink drivers involved. While we accept that the number of drink drivers involved would probably increase, we consider it would be more effective in targeting dangerous drivers. We also support the increased cost of the scheme being borne by the offenders.

  99.    We were impressed by the measures which exist in both Sweden and particularly Germany for dealing with the high risk offender (see paragraphs 25-27). The German system of medical-psychological assessment provides a much more thorough assessment than that currently undertaken in the United Kingdom, as witnessed by the relatively high failure rates. The Swedish assessment of HROs over a period of 6 months[42], and the use of provisionally re-granted licences, acts to lower the rate of recidivism. We recommend that the HRO scheme in the United Kingdom should be improved by incorporating many of these features, particularly the introduction of a more rigorous examination, over a period of time, involving psychological as well as medical assessment. We also recommend a closer link between the Rehabilitation and HRO schemes in the United Kingdom.


  100.    While new young drivers are disproportionately represented in drink drive accident statistics, it is young men in their twenties who are most at risk. We disagree, therefore, with the suggestion by the IAS for a BAC limit of 20mg/100ml for new drivers in the United Kingdom. A policy of a 20mg/100ml limit for new drivers would mean an increase in the permitted BAC for male drivers just when they reach the age when they are typically most at risk. The Committee questions whether higher penalties or lower limits for such drivers would be effective. Furthermore, we agree with Commissioner Kinnock that age-related legislation would be unworkable. We believe that specific and targeted publicity and education is particularly important in tackling this group.


  101.    Existing police powers in Great Britain allow an officer to stop any vehicle[43]. An officer also has the power, if he has reasonable suspicion that the driver has a BAC over the legal limit, to require a breath test[44].

  102.    For any drink drive legislation to be effective, the police must have reasonable powers of enforcement. The Committee was concerned to hear the opinions of several witnesses that there is some confusion among police officers about their powers to stop and breathalyse motorists under the Road Traffic Act 1988. While the Committee feels that these opinions of police confusion overstate the problem, we support better training for police officers in the powers available to them, as well as greater public education of the extent of these powers.

  103.    Several witnesses supported the introduction of Random Breath Testing (RBT) in the United Kingdom (paragraph 53). The Home Office, however, regard RBT as a broad and blunt weapon and an inefficient use of scarce resources (paragraph 54). While we understand that RBT has been relatively successful in reducing the incidence of drink driving in several Australian States, we are not convinced that its application in the United Kingdom would be viable.

  104.    Other witnesses supported "unfettered discretion" in police powers for enforcing drink drive legislation. Unfettered discretion, in effect, means that the conditions under which a police officer may request a breath test are not specified; a police officer could require a breath test any time, any place, anywhere. It would therefore represent a vast increase in police powers if it was introduced in the United Kingdom. We conclude that existing police powers to stop and breathalyse motorists on the grounds of reasonable suspicion are sufficient. We are therefore against the introduction of unfettered discretion in the United Kingdom.

  105.    From evidence received on the United Kingdom, we believe that the police do have the powers under existing legislation for targeted enforcement of potential drink drivers and we support the expanded use of targeted enforcement in the United Kingdom, including at major events. Furthermore, we support the use of intelligence to target, where possible, convicted drink drivers who are known not to have re-applied for their licences and may be driving while disqualified.

  106.    The technology for the introduction of evidential roadside breath testing exists in the United Kingdom. The Committee supports the view that the introduction of roadside evidential breath testing would enable many more breath tests to be carried out within existing resources and would allow more effective enforcement. The Committee therefore recommends that evidential roadside breath testing be introduced as a priority in the United Kingdom. We note the evidence on the number of breath tests as a proportion of the driving population from Sweden and consider that the proportion of breath tests should be increased in the United Kingdom. Conversely, police powers must command public consent. Increasing the number of breath tests that police officers are able to carry out within existing resources will increase the risk, both perceived and real, of being caught.

  107.    Several witnesses argued that road safety should be made a police priority. This would raise the profile of road policing, including action against drink driving. The Committee believes that making road policing the United Kingdom a core policing objective would not only help to reduce the number of all road accidents annually, but would stimulate increased police activity in enforcing road safety legislation. This in turn may have a deterrent effect and could also help to reduce the 86 per cent of road accident fatalities not involving illegal levels of alcohol.


  108.    The Committee believes that the DETR's 1997 slogan, "None for the road", is effective in restating the old message of "Don't drink and drive". The Committee support the approach behind this message that, whatever the permitted BAC for drivers, the message should be that it is not safe to drink and drive at all. For this reason, the Committee would not support efforts to educate the public about the amount of alcohol required before a driver reaches the permitted BAC. Not only would this be counterproductive in sending conflicting messages about drink driving, but it would also be misleading given the physiological factors which affect the peak BAC achieved after consuming a given amount of alcohol.

  109.    Legislation on limits, penalties and enforcement can never be wholly effective in deterring the potential drink driver. We believe that education and publicity about the dangers of drink driving could encourage a greater degree of personal responsibility. Whilst education on the effects of alcohol on driving performance is included in the general education about alcohol in personal and social education in United Kingdom schools, we consider that the specific problems of combining drinking and driving should be emphasised. This practice is consistent with the Committee's view that publicity should be aimed at young people who are disproportionately represented in drink drive accidents.

  110.    While the Committee accepts that, for a number of reasons, personal breathalysers and ignition interlock devices are not foolproof in detecting BAC above the permitted limit, we do not support the views of some witnesses that because they are not 100 per cent effective they would not be useful. In our opinion, the increased use of self-test breathalysers and ignition interlock devices could have a positive effect, encouraging more personal responsibility in the decision of whether to drink and drive, and therefore allowing the responsible citizen to comply with the law.


  111.    The Committee has examined the proposed reduction in the permitted BAC for drivers in the general context of tackling drink driving. Having examined the other countermeasures above, we consider that a reduction in the legal limit to 50mg/100ml in the United Kingdom would be significantly less effective in reducing the number of accidents involving an illegal level of alcohol than other countermeasures.

  112.    There was some difference of opinion in the evidence on reducing the legal limit. While evidence shows that driving performance is impaired at 50mg/100ml, and therefore a reduction in the limit would save lives, it remains unclear to what extent. We acknowledge the view that reducing the legal limit would send a message that the United Kingdom Government are serious about reducing drink driving. We also recognise the psychological impact a reduction in the limit might have.

  113.    We also acknowledge, however, that lowering the limit would have little impact on those driving with a BAC significantly above the limit. We are aware of the risk of alienating public opinion by lowering the limit and maintaining the minimum 12 month licence suspension in the United Kingdom. We are also concerned that reasonable suspicion may not be effective in identifying drivers with a BAC in the 50-79mg/100ml range. We note the concerns raised by some witnesses about the impact on the "pub culture" in the United Kingdom. The Committee concurs with the view expressed by the IAS that "a low limit which is not adequately enforced is likely to be less effective in reducing casualties than a higher limit that is effectively enforced".

  114.    The Committee believes that reducing the permitted BAC limit for drivers from 80mg to 50mg/100ml in the United Kingdom would, of itself, make only a marginal long term difference to the number of road accidents involving illegal levels of alcohol. It would, however, have an important psychological effect as part of a package of more severe measures. On balance, therefore, the Committee considers that the permitted BAC level for drivers in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 50mg/100ml.


  115.    The Committee came to the firm conclusion that the most effective way to reduce the incidence of drink driving consists of a four-way matrix of countermeasures: penalties; enforcement; publicity/education; and the legal limit. Of these four, penalties and enforcement are by a long way the most important.


  116.    The Committee agrees that the Community has competence to legislate on drink drive limits. We also agree with the Government that there is a real subsidiarity issue. While the Committee considers that the permitted BAC for drivers should be reduced to 50mg/100ml, this conclusion is reached on the merits of the proposal for the United Kingdom. In the absence of compelling evidence as to the "clear benefits" for the Community, we do not support the proposed Directive harmonising drink driving limits at 50mg/100ml across the European Union. We consider that setting the permitted BAC level for drivers is a matter for Member State governments. We re-iterate our support for a reduction to 50mg/100ml in the permitted BAC level for drivers in the United Kingdom and welcome the positive affects of convergence of BAC limits across Member States.


  117.    The Committee considers that this proposal raises important questions to which the attention of the House should be drawn and recommends this Report to the House for debate.

38   Report TRA/176, Doc CES 567/89 1/HUG/CH/em. Back

39   Commissioner Kinnock, Q 309. Back

40   Road Traffic Act 1988, section 4. Back

41   See footnote 7. Back

42   Three months if the applicant is successful. Back

43   Road Traffic Act 1988, section 163. Back

44   Road Traffic Act 1988, section 6. Back

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