Select Committee on European Union Forty-Ninth Report


Letter from David Jamieson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport to the Chairman

  I am writing in response to your Committee's report of its inquiry into drinking and driving, dated 2 July 2002 (HL Paper 140).

  I would like to thank the Committee for this report and for taking the trouble to revisit this subject after the 1998 inquiry. I think we can agree on the importance of this matter for road safety even if we are not totally in agreement about the remedies.

  I would like to make a few comments in response to the views expressed by the Committee in paragraphs 41-52 and, of course, the recommendation at paragraph 51.

  As the report acknowledges, the UK has been very successful in tackling drinking and driving over the last two decades and our record in reducing deaths and serious injuries stands comparison with any other EU Member State (paragraph 45). However, we are conscious that there is still a great deal of work to do if we are to eradicate the problem, and that is one of the purposes of the measures set out in our 10-year Road Safety Strategy.

  Regarding the estimates of casualty savings in our consultation document, I was certainly not trying to undermine them and I am sorry if the Committee got that impression. But these are no more than estimates and lowering the limit would not guarantee delivery of those savings. It is also worth noting that the results from research based on experiences in other countries where legal limits have been changed are likely to have been affected by the influence of other anti-drink-driving measures. In most cases it appeared that underlying trends and concurrent factors, such as publicity and enforcement policy, were not always measured. This is not to deny that the package of measures had beneficial effects, but it explains why it is difficult to apportion these effects to each of the contributory factors.

  We have also seen a further report by the Canadian Traffic Injury Research Foundation "The safety impact of lowering the BAC limit for drivers in Canada" (May 2002). The main purpose of this report was to provide a critical review of research studies that have evaluated the road safety impact of lowering the limit, with particular emphasis on change from 80 to 50mg. This includes research carried out in the USA, Sweden and Australia. The report concluded that its review of evaluation literature "failed to provide strong, consistent and unqualified support for lowering BAC limits. At best, the results are mixed and the methodological weaknesses in the studies raise questions about the robustness and veracity of the evidence."

  These findings reinforce the Government's view that the benefits of lowering the limit are by no means clear-cut. In the light of such uncertainty, we think it right to be cautious about reducing the limit in this country and to concentrate on other measures to bring down drink-related casualty totals.

  The Government shares the Committee's view that the ultimate objective should be to persuade the public not to drink at all when driving. This has been the central aim of drink-driving policy for many years and has underpinned every one of our national publicity campaigns. We do, however, have some difficulty with the Committee's conclusion at paragraph 44 about the level of penalties in relation to the BAC limit.

  Penalties for road traffic offences are a key element in the enforcement of drink-drive laws. I would like to reiterate what I said in my evidence about the difficulties we see in combining a reduction in the limit to 50mg with our current penalty regime. As the Committee noted, penalties in this country are far more severe for exceeding the 80mg limit than in other EU countries. Most countries with a lower legal limit impose only minor penalties at the lower alcohol levels, and imprisonment and licence removal are not generally available below alcohol levels of 100mg or more.

  Applying our penalties at a 50mg level would put us further out of line with Europe in terms of sanctions. It could be regarded as unduly harsh and, critically, is unlikely to command as much respect from the motoring public. The alternative of adopting a system of lesser penalties at the lower alcohol level, as in other EU states, could create the unfortunate impression that the Government is willing to regard some levels of drink-driving as more acceptable than others. We also have concerns about whether lower level penalties will have any real effect on offending rates.


  I hope with these comments I have covered the main points raised by the Committee. It is clear that your Committee continues to share the Government's view that the best way to reduce drink-driving and minimise drink-related casualties is through a combination of measures. It is only on the level of the BAC legal limit that we appear to disagree. I appreciate, nevertheless, that you have significant reservations about the Government's decision not to reduce the limit in line with the Committee's recommendation.

  Since the publication of the Committee's report, this Department has issued provisional figures for drink-related accidents in 2001 (Road Accidents Great Britain: 2001, TSO, September 2002). It is encouraging to see that fatalities (480) and serious injuries (2,410) are down, following increases in 2000, but disappointing that the overall casualty total is up. But these figures are still unacceptable, and we will continue to keep the pressure on drink-drivers. If the further measures we have proposed do not have the desired effect, it will be necessary to review our drink-drive strategy.

10 December 2002

Letter from the Chairman to Mr David Jamieson MP, Department for Transport

  Thank you for your letter dated 10 December which we take to be the formal Government response to the follow-up report[7] to our 1998 report. [8]This letter was considered by Sub-Committee B at its meeting on 13 January 2003.

  As we stressed throughout this short inquiry, the position we arrived at in Drinking and Driving was based, primarily, on the work already undertaken in the original inquiry into blood alcohol levels for drivers.

  We note that there are areas where we have failed to persuade the Government to make changes. Like you, we support the package approach, but we do not think this excludes a lower limit. We were also aware of the Canadian inquiry which suggested that the methodology of existing evaluation literature might not be as failsafe as its supporters claimed.

  You have our views, too, on the question of penalties in which we reiterated the decision that our predecessors had arrived at in 1998.

  One of the elements which we found particularly telling was the contention that driver impairment began at levels as low as 50mg/100ml. You do not comment on this.

We recognise that on the question of the BAC legal limit, we must disagree. Our disagreement with you on this particular point does not mean that we are not conscious of the very valuable work your Department does in trying to continue to bring down the number of casualties from road accidents. It is saddening to learn that in 2001 the total number of casualties rose, but heartening to see that the number of fatalities and serious injuries fell. However, the report in the Daily Express of 9 January 2003 that drink driving offences over the Christmas and New Year 2002-03 were the worst for five years, reinforces our view that the Government should review the legal limit.

15 January 2003

Letter from David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 15 January replying to mine of 10 December 2002 in which I set out the Government's response to your Committee's report.

  I am grateful to you for notifying me of the Committee's reaction to those comments. I regret that I have been unable to convince the Committee of the Government's position on the BAC legal limit, but understand why you continue to have significant reservations about our decision not to lower it. As you say, it seems that we will have to disagree on this question and on the linked issue of appropriate penalties for a lower limit.

  It is clear, however, that we agree about the importance of reducing drink-drive casualties to the minimum possible and, if possible, of eliminating drinking and driving altogether. To that end, the Government intends to keep the pressure on drink-drivers by further, high-profile publicity campaigns, the continued expansion of the drink-drive rehabilitation scheme and the development of our proposals for enhanced police powers and penalties for drink-drive offences.

  I can however assure you that I will be studying the next set of annual drink-drive casualty and breathtesting figures very closely when they become available later in the year.

10 February 2003

7   Drinking and Driving (24th Report, Session 2001-02, HL Paper 140) Back

8   Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (16th Report, Session 1997-98, HL Paper 82) Back

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