Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2000

* Sus on Wheels *

Mass breath testing is an ineffective means of combating drink-driving that alienates law-abiding motorists

Over every Christmas period, we read reports of some police force or other having carried out an immense number of breath tests and achieved only a handful of positive results. Last year, for example, over a twelve-day period, Cheshire police carried out 4,119 tests, of which a mere three proved positive, or less than one-tenth of one percent. The argument in favour of this approach is that it is a powerful deterrent that sends a message to potential offenders that, wherever and whenever they drive, they stand a significant chance of being stopped and tested. In the past, this may have had some validity, but the diminishing returns surely must indicate that it is becoming less and less true.

I am not suggesting that the police should in any way “go soft” on drink-driving or give drunk drivers a sporting chance. However, the strategy of mass breath testing is increasingly becoming a waste of police time and effort that serves to alienate the public while being ineffective in apprehending or indeed deterring offenders. If you keep looking for something, but rarely if ever catch anybody, surely it indicates that you might just be barking up the wrong tree.

Any responsible citizen will wish to help the police in their efforts to catch lawbreakers. But, equally, the police have a duty to use powers of a “stop and search” nature with discretion and a sense of proportion. If they fail to do that, they will inevitably forfeit the respect and co-operation of law-abiding people. Non drink-driving motorists will become increasingly fed up of being held up when going about their legitimate business and, in effect, being treated as suspects and having an unwarranted accusation levelled at them.

If this was any other form of law enforcement, then the civil liberties lobby would be up in arms, but since it involves a combination of the two bętes noires of political correctness - alcohol and the motor car - they remain strangely silent. Perhaps they might take more interest if the government ever gets round to taking effective measures against drug-impaired driving, which police forces now believe accounts for considerably more deaths and injuries than excess alcohol, and is a growing rather than diminishing problem.

Drink-related road casualties are less than a third the level of twenty years ago, and it is generally acknowledged that the battle has been largely won amongst the general public, with the problem now confined to a small hard core who tend to have little or no respect for any road traffic law. This is not grounds for complacency, but surely it suggests that it is time for a change in approach that puts more emphasis on detection and less on deterrence. The government themselves, in their road safety strategy document, published earlier this year, have acknowledged the need for more intelligence-led drink-drive enforcement.

The police should aim to identify in more detail exactly who are these hard-core offenders, where and when they are drinking, and how best to catch them, and adopt a much more closely targeted strategy to achieve that. One would hope that up to a point they are doing that already, but it does make you wonder when they continue to carry out huge numbers of breath tests with ridiculously few positive results.

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