A Fairer and More Effective Solution

The submission of The Association of British Drivers in response to the 1998 government consultation paper on drink driving — "Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps"

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Residual Alcohol issues
2.1 Blood alcohol levels vary with people and circumstances
2.2 The time taken to remove alcohol is also variable
2.3 There is evidence that falling alcohol levels are less dangerous than rising ones
2.4 The potential negative effect on the "hard-core" drink drivers' attitudes
2.5 Public acceptance of the new limit
2.6 Police Powers
3. A 50mg Limit would make a very questionable contribution to safety
3.1 The accuracy of the measures of risk
3.2 The absolute level of risk
3.3 The actual Figures for the UK
3.4 Direct Measurement of Effect of Low Alcohol Levels on Driving Ability
3.5 Types of Drivers with 50-80mg
3.6 The level of risk posed by these drivers
3.7 The experience of other countries
4. The Proposals of the ABD

 

1. Introduction

The Association of British Drivers (ABD), as a body representing drivers' interests, is as eager as anyone to ensure that all road users can go about their legitimate business without their lives being put at risk by those who drive whilst impaired by alcohol.

There is no disputing that the incidence of drunken driving and the deaths so caused have fallen drastically over the past 30 years. Equally, it is clear that this improvement has not been maintained over the past five or six years, with a levelling off of "drink related" fatalities. Central to the proposed strategy for further reducing alcohol related deaths is the reduction of the permitted blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level from the current 80mg/100ml to 50mg. The ABD believes that this measure will achieve nothing but the pointless criminalisation of millions of responsible people who are not causing any danger to others. This will lead to a serious danger of public respect for the limit, and consequently the entire anti drink drive strategy, being undermined.

Publicly aired arguments against the limit reduction to date have tended to come under two basic headings:

These arguments are valid, but they miss the point to a greater or lesser extent and therefore are not central to the ABD submission.

The most powerful argument against a reduction in the BAC limit also sheds considerable light on why current policies are failing to improve the alcohol related deaths. This is the residual alcohol issue, whereby a non drink driver can still be unwittingly over the limit many hours after drinking without any detectable impairment in his driving performance. This issue is rarely mentioned in the media and its very existence is denied by implication in the term "drink driving". Section 2 looks at the sociological effects of this issue and how these are likely to be affected by a limit reduction.

The ABD has also examined the evidence presented in the Consultation Paper suggesting that a small but significant number of lives could be saved by reducing the limit to 50mg. There has been no truly large scale study on the effects of lower levels of alcohol on real driving since the 1960s, and what there has been is full of assumptions and inconsistencies. There is also little robust data either on the BAC of drivers who survive accidents but who are below 80mg or on the BAC of the driving population as a whole. Those figures that do exist suggest that there is very little if any over representation of 50-80mg drivers in the accident statistics. There is, therefore, virtually no hard evidence to support the benefits of the proposed limit reduction. This area is dealt with in Section 3.

It would therefore be quite reckless for the Government to push ahead with a BAC limit reduction which would certainly result in gross injustice for many thousands of responsible motorists and probably undermine public support for the anti drink drive message, whilst delivering, at best, highly uncertain, unproved and marginal direct road safety improvements.

Finally, Section 4 summarises the recommendations of the ABD.
 

2. Residual Alcohol issues

It would be entirely possible for a member of the public to finish reading the main body of the consultation document and to come away with the erroneous impression that: These impressions are false, as many responsible citizens have discovered at immense cost to themselves after they have been prosecuted for "drink driving" when their blood contained residual alcohol of which they were entirely unaware. Furthermore, the penalties incurred by, such people are almost indistinguishable in severity from those meted out to deliberate drink drivers with double the present legal limit. These issues are mentioned only in passing, if at all, but are central to achieving real improvements in safety.

2.1 Blood alcohol levels vary with people and circumstances

Reducing the limit to a point where a typical person cannot detect the effects of alcohol will deny them the opportunity to avoid driving until those effects have gone away. Despite being no danger to the public, they will unwittingly be breaking the law. To penalise them to the same extent as those who deliberately beak the law, resulting in loss of livelihood, is contrary to any civilised criminal justice system.

2.2 The time taken to remove alcohol is also variable

The ABD reserves the right to refuse membership to those with serious motoring convictions, but it recognises that these can arise unjustly. It therefore requests details of circumstances of any drink drive convictions before accepting the applicant. One member recently applied with such a conviction which, it transpired, had resulted from a breath test no less than seventeen hours after the last alcoholic drink. This non drink driver was then subjected to a 15 month driving ban and a large fine — a more severe penalty than many deliberate drink drivers.

2.3 There is evidence that falling alcohol levels are less dangerous than rising ones

2.4 The potential negative effect on the "hard-core" drink drivers' attitudes

There are those in the road safety establishment who put forward an argument that if lives are saved then it does not matter how many people are unjustly prosecuted. The criminal justice system of a civilised country does not work in this manner — and with good reason. If the innocent are caught up with the guilty then the law falls into disrepute and there is no longer any deterrence. This is already an issue — and reducing the limit can only make matters worse.

2.5 Public acceptance of the new limit

It is important to remember that the existing limit is widely accepted. Reducing a limit that is accepted as reasonable will run the risk of reducing this acceptance. There is little open publicity about the potential injustices caused by the residual alcohol problem at the moment. This could well change if the 50mg limit is introduced, to the detriment of public acceptance.

2.6 Police Powers

The police currently have the effective right to stop and test any driver they choose. They usually target their efforts, quite rightly, on those driving in a reckless or erratic manner, those leaving pub car parks, known offenders and those in accidents. Rather than increasing these powers, and so encouraging the police to waste much effort as well as creating much public antagonism by undertaking random road blocks, the ABD would suggest that a publicity campaign be mounted to increase awareness of just how easy it is for a police officer to carry out a breath test should he choose to do so. This would counter the belief amongst many drink drivers that they have little to fear provided they can avoid an accident and drive in a straight line.
 

3. A 50mg Limit would make a very questionable contribution to safety

[The Borkenstein Study, How Accident Risk Varies with BAC]The 80mg limit introduced in 1967 was the one requested by road safety campaigners on the basis of the only piece of large scale scientific research on the subject, the Grand Rapids (Borkenstein) study, which compared the blood alcohol levels of over 5500 drivers involved in accidents with a control group of similar size selected from passing drivers at the time.

This showed that the chances of being involved in an accident only starts to climb significantly when blood alcohol levels go over 100mg. The vast majority of drink drive fatalities involve drivers with more than double the current limit, at which point the research showed a 21 fold increase in the chances of having a serious accident. The risk at 80mg was some 48% higher than that at 50mg, and some 80% higher than for a zero BAC.

These figures are very different from those quoted in the consultation paper, which are attributed to Borkenstein, saying that a driver in the 50-80 mg range is 2-2.5 times more likely to be involved in a non fatal accident and 6 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident. The ABD has therefore taken a hard look at the reliability of these figures and has considerable comment to make on the robustness of the forecast that reducing the limit to 50mg will save 50 lives per annum

3.1 The accuracy of the measures of risk

The "generally accepted" measure of increased risk differs from the only large scale study which was done over 30 years ago in another country. No other studies on the same scale are described in the consultation document. So, do these estimates make sense?

The big flaw in the Grand Rapids, and other similar studies, is the comparison between the drivers involved in the accidents and the control group. This is a crucial point. It is surely believable that drivers who are cautious and safe in their outlook, and therefore less Likely to have an accident, are also less likely to drink and drive. If this is so, then drivers with alcohol will automatically he over represented in the accident statistics simply because they come from sub groups who are more likely to have an accident anyway. The researchers were able to correct their figures for many factors such as age, and possibly socio-economic group and drinking habits, but there are huge differences in accident frequency between individuals who are indistinguishable in these categories due largely , to attitude and personality. At higher concentrations of alcohol, of course, the increased risk is so large that these factors will be overcome, but at low levels the probabilities we are dealing with are so small and there are so many other factors involved that it is very difficult to isolate the blood alcohol variable with any degree of confidence.

3.2 The absolute level of risk

The level of risk is tiny — according to the Borkenstein study, the increased risk of being involved in a serious accident at 80mg over 50mg is one tenth of the chance of winning the national lottery jackpot, measured on a daily basis.

This absolute level of risk must be viewed in the context of other risks which may be much larger, such as driving whilst tired, ill, bereaved, angry or stressed. None of these are currently illegal and may well involve much higher risks than driving with 50-80mg of alcohol, if it were possible to isolate these variables effectively. It may also be that the perceived increased risk from alcohol is linked to one or more of these variables anyway. There is great danger in risking the level of public support for anti drink drive measures simply to pursue a relatively minor risk because it happens to be linked to something that is easy to measure, whilst ignoring much higher risks.

3.3 The actual Figures for the UK

Several questions need to be raised concerning the way UK statistics are presented in the consultation document and the way they, are used to estimate the projected reduction in fatalities of 50 per annum.
Statistic Roadside Survey of Drivers
in 40-80mg range (p31)
Hospital admissions Drivers
in 40-80mg range (p31)
Fatally injured drivers
in 50-80mg range (p30)
Percent of Drivers 2.3 2.1 2.0

3.4 Direct Measurement of Effect of Low Alcohol Levels on Driving Ability

Some commentators quote simulator or test track experiments that show marginal changes in reaction times and driving ability at the extremes with small quantities of alcohol. These prove nothing on the road, because, in all the tests that the ABD has seen, the driver has to be subjected to tests he would fail when sober to show up any effect. Only when an amount of alcohol in excess of the current legal limit has been consumed does real driving ability, suffer. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that a congenitally reckless driver who should not be on the road at all is marginally affected, which supports the ABD's scepticism about the risk increase statistics.

3.5 Types of Drivers with 50-80mg

The consultation paper assumes that half of those currently driving with 50-80mg will reduce their intake to below 50mg as a result of the limit reduction. There are three types of drivers driving in this BAC range:
  1. Those who flaunt the current 80mg limit but who, at the time of testing, just happen to be below 80mg, probably much to their surprise.
  2. Those who are completely unaware they have any significant alcohol in their blood due to the residual alcohol problem.
  3. Those who are drinking and driving but who are ensuring that they remain under the 80mg limit.
Clearly, the limit reduction will have no effect on the first two groups, who either do not know or do not care what their blood alcohol level is before driving. Only the third group is even open to the likelihood of reducing their intake in response to a law change. These are unlikely to comprise 50% of the total in this range, even if they all decided to moderate their intake, which is unlikely. The suggestion that 50% of 50-80mg drivers will cut their intake to below 50mg is therefore deeply flawed.

3.6 The level of risk posed by these drivers

We have already raised the issue that "morning after" drivers who are unaware of their blood alcohol content are less likely to pose a risk than those with a rising alcohol level. But what of the other groups?

So, once again, we have a situation — whereby a lowering of the limit will have a disproportionate effect on the responsible citizen and little effect on the reckless who are the ones who should be targeted by legislation.

3.7 The experience of other countries

It is claimed that other countries like France and Australia have shown big reductions in deaths after lowering their limits, but these do not take account of the absolute level of alcohol related accidents.

These countries had much higher incidences of drunk driving than the UK due to a previous absence of UK levels of enforcement and publicity. The limit reductions have been accompanied by increases in both enforcement and publicity, so to claim that the limit reduction has caused these improvements is not reasonable. They are simply catching up with the social change that has already happened here, and to predict a similar percentage reduction in the UK based on a hard-core of persistent drink drivers is not valid.
 

4. The Proposals of the ABD

Taking into account the available evidence, and on the basis of the above reasoning, the Association of British Drivers makes the following recommendations.
  1. Retain the legal BAC limit for driving at the current level of 80mg/100ml.

  2. Remove the minimum penalty of a one year driving ban to allow the courts fairly to take account of "residual alcohol" circumstances.

  3. Redefinition of such offences to allow a different coding on the driving licence and earlier removal.

  4. Removal or modification of the absurd "offence" of being drunk in charge of a vehicle whereby those simply sitting, or even sleeping in a parked vehicle with no intention of driving it are treated the same as drunk drivers.

  5. More serious penalties to be made available to the courts for those with very high levels of alcohol.

  6. No increase in police powers to breathalyse, but publicity to advise the public of the full extent of their current powers.

  7. Research to be conducted into factors affecting alcohol uptake and elimination rates. Results to form part of an education campaign to help prevent people unwittingly driving with excess residual alcohol.
 


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