Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2007
So-called random breath testing will have a negative effect on road safety
UNDER PROPOSALS to reduce road casualties, the government have announced that motorists are to face so-called random breath testing. Ministers claim that giving the police the power to stop any driver, regardless of how they are driving, would be a powerful deterrent. At present, the police can stop only those drivers who have committed a moving traffic offence, who have been involved in an accident, or who they suspect of having exceeded the legal limit.
In fact, “random breath testing” is nothing of the kind. That implies that the police will set up roadblocks and stop every seventh vehicle, or whatever. But what is really being proposed is “unfettered discretion”, an entirely different concept, that the police can test any driver, whenever and wherever they choose, regardless of any suspicion or evidence.
It is hard to see this making any difference to current conviction rates, as the key constraint on the number of breath tests is police resources, not powers. The police interpret their existing powers very broadly and in practice can already test anyone they want to. What is the point of testing someone when you have no grounds to suspect they may be offending? And the reason the number of breath tests administered has fallen in recent years is because so many traffic police officers have been replaced by speed cameras, which of course are singularly useless in detecting drink-drive offenders.
What this measure will do is further erode the basic principle of a free society that the police should not treat anyone as a suspect without due cause. There is also the concern that it will remove any constraints on the unreasonable targeting of specific individuals or establishments. If the police did not like how a particular pub was being run, they could target its customers to the point that it was closed down. It is no use saying that the innocent have nothing to fear, as if you were routinely harassed when visiting a specific pub, you would naturally choose either to go elsewhere or not bother at all.
The best way of reducing drink-drive offending is surely to provide drivers with realistic, honest information about how to abide by the law. Regrettably, the government, obsessed with the unrealistic concept of “even one drink is dangerous” seem disinclined to see sense. Meanwhile, the casualties continue to mount up.
How can licensees be expected to monitor their customers’ consumption in detail?
A FURTHER proposal is that a greater obligation will be placed on pub landlords and restaurant owners not to allow their customers to drink and drive. But it is hard to see how the law can deter licensees from serving too much alcohol to driving customers when they have no means of telling how much they have consumed, let alone how they have travelled there. Should every single pub customer be individually registered on arrival, questioned as to their mode of transport, and have all their individual drinks recorded? And even if they were, what’s to stop people visiting two or more pubs?
This also panders to the antiquated view that the drink-driving problem is mostly linked to rural pubs, where a link may easily be established between drivers and their consumption pattern. In practice offenders are far more likely to have been drinking in urban boozers, social clubs, restaurants, leisure centres or even private homes, where car parking may well not be next door and cannot be directly linked to the outlet.