Drink-Driving - A Fresh ApproachHow we could really make serious inroads in drink-related road deaths, if the government had the moral courage to put political correctness to one side
No doubt this Christmas we will see another hard-hitting government campaign against drink-driving, and we often hear that it has become scarcely more socially acceptable than child abuse. Yet, in recent years, the declining trend in alcohol-related deaths has levelled off at around 500 per year, and each year over 80,000 people are convicted of driving when over the limit. There must be far more who are never caught. The average blood alcohol level of those convicted is twice the current legal limit. Clearly there remains a large number of people for whom driving when knowingly well over the limit is not socially unacceptable. Maybe this should suggest to the authorities that, rather than intensifying their current efforts, they will only achieve a further step-change in the level of offences if they adopt a radically different approach.
Each Christmas we are given increasingly ludicrous figures of the number of breath tests carried out by certain police forces, and the generally tiny proportion of positive results. Lancashire Police took the prize last year with 32,000 tests and a mere five positive. Since it is generally reckoned that maybe a half of one per cent of drivers tested at random will be over the limit, this is no mean achievement. I have criticised this policy in the past - not on the grounds of denying drinking drivers a sporting chance, but because it is becoming a complete waste of police time. Maybe it served a purpose of impressing on drivers that they can never be confident that they won't be tested, but it has outlived its usefulness, and is alienating many people who don't drink and drive and get fed up being stopped and placed under suspicion.
The police must have a very good idea of the kind of people who are likely to be serious drink-drive offenders, and where and when they drink, and they should target those groups in a much more focused way. Reading through reports of drink-driving cases, there seems to be a strong correlation with those who have strings of other motoring convictions to their name. These are people who basically have little or no respect for any road traffic law, and who constitute a kind of motoring underclass. Rather than wasting their time testing tens of thousands of sober drivers, the police would be better advised to go after those with no road tax, no insurance, no MOT, driving unroadworthy vehicles and indulging in reckless and aggressive driving. In that way they would do the majority of responsible motorists a favour, and would also catch a lot more drunk drivers and save a lot more lives.
The authorities should abandon the line currently taken of "even a single drink is dangerous". This is demonstrably untrue, erodes respect for the law and prevents many responsible people and organisations from giving their wholehearted support to anti drink-driving campaigns. Although having a drink is never going to make you a better driver, you have to drink at the very least the equivalent of one and a half pints, which might take you just above a 50 mg blood alcohol level, before there is the slightest increase in accident risk, and considerably more before it makes any significant difference.
What they should say, which is what they used to say until the mid-80s, is "Ideally, drivers should not drink at all. If they do, they should drink no more than 3 units of alcohol". Those are not my words, they are taken from a hard-hitting booklet entitled The Facts about Drinking and Driving, which was published by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 1986. That message is credible. "Have None for the Road" is not - and, of course, young drivers in particular, who see this kind of slogan, know it is not true and does not represent what the law says, don't then know when to stop. Recent research has also shown that high-risk offenders are likely to be ignorant about the effect of alcoholic drinks on the body, something the misleading "one drink is dangerous" message is likely to encourage.
The government should also mount a high profile publicity initiative about the risks of "morning after" driving, which for at least one year should be the main thrust of the Christmas campaign. This accounts for an increasing proportion of drink-driving convictions, and the dangers are not properly understood by the public. I know some people who will scarcely even have a half of shandy immediately before driving, and yet at the same time must frequently drive when well over the limit because they have been drinking heavily the day before. They're not in general hypocrites - it's just that nobody has impressed on them just how slowly alcohol is metabolised.
The objection raised to this is that it blurs the issue, and must involve teaching people "unit counting" which can be used to "drink up to the limit". But in the real world, the overwhelming majority of drivers drink alcohol at other times, and if they want to stay safe and keep their licences, unless they are all to become teetotal, they need to be aware of it. Even if you have drunk three pints and don't drive again for another twenty-four hours, the only way you know you are OK is through unit counting. The truly irresponsible approach is to ignore it, and merely parrot the mantra of "don't drink and drive" which does not address the question of residual alcohol at all.
As on many other road safety issues, the government have a clear choice between a responsible policy that will command the support of most people and will bring about genuine improvements, and moving towards a draconian "zero tolerance" approach which will alienate those it affects and in practice very possibly make things worse. Are they brave enough to make the right choice on this most emotive of subjects?