Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2002
Official dishonesty about drinking and driving is costing lives
In Cheshire and Greater Manchester, figures for drink-driving over the Christmas period showed a welcome and encouraging fall. Unfortunately this experience was not repeated nationwide, where the proportion of positive breath tests from over 15,000 drivers tested after accidents rose from 7% to 8%. This is not in itself statistically significant, and may merely reflect a change in the pattern of testing, but it clearly suggests that the substantial improvements achieved in recent years have ground to a halt.
Part of the problem must be that people, particularly youngsters entering the driving population, are given no information as to what the law represents and how to adhere to it. The government continues to tell drivers not to touch a drop, when everybody knows that is not a fair representation of either the law or the facts on accident risk. Something so clearly untrue makes a laughing stock of both education and the law, and will encourage people to doubt everything they are told. To be taken seriously, road safety education and rules must always be realistic and truthful. The absence of honest information can also give rise to dangerous myths - for example, in a survey carried out last autumn, some young drinkers expressed the belief that they could drink five pints of strong lager and still remain within the legal limit.
However, the authorities have not always been so coy with the truth. An official booklet produced by the Transport Research Laboratory in 1986 said: "Ideally, don't drink anything at all. If you do drink, the following are sensible guidelines:
Nothing beats a real-life policeman in improving road safety
Probably the biggest deterrent to the potential drink-drive offender is the threat of detection, and knowing other people who have been caught. Unfortunately, in recent years the chances of this happening, outside high-profile Christmas campaigns, have greatly diminished, as many police forces have cut back or effectively disbanded their traffic departments. Outside the motorway network, it is now extremely rare to see a traffic patrol car within the Greater Manchester boundary.
Enforcement has increasingly been entrusted to automatic cameras detecting speeding and red light jumping. But however effective they may be in reducing these specific violations, they are completely incapable of identifying drink-drive offenders, nor of dealing with the growing problem of untaxed and unlicensed drivers. Indeed it has often been remarked that drivers tend to show an exaggerated respect for speed limits if they know they are over the limit. In matters of road safety, cameras can never be an adequate substitute for flesh-and-blood police officers.