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Drink driving – a police officer’s perspective

Lowering the legal limit will send out a clear zero tolerance message, argues police officer Claire McNaney

21 December 2016 – The festive period is a time for celebration, over-indulgence and spending time with loved ones.

Unfortunately, 77 people in the North East spent Christmas and New Year either injured or on a mortuary slab as a result of drink-driving (injuries/fatalities 17th December – 2nd January 2010-2015), with December seeing the most serious and fatal drink-drive casualties alongside June (29 and 29 between 2011-2015).

There is much confusion about how much alcohol you can drink and still be within the legal limit to drive. Whenever I pose this question during drink-drive workshops, the general consensus is “1 or 2 pints”.

When I explain that it’s actually 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood I’m met with a sea of confused faces. And that’s the problem. Having spent several years as a Roads Policing Officer, even I can’t tell you what 80mg of alcohol per 100ml blood looks like.

I can however tell you what it’s like to pick up body parts off the road because a drink driver has mounted the kerb and killed them, what it’s like knocking on someone’s door at 3 in the morning to tell them that their beloved son has died because of a drink driver, what it’s like comforting someone trapped in a vehicle because they got into a vehicle with a drink driver or what it’s like arresting a drink driver when they “only had 2 pints”, yet didn’t see the pedestrian on the crossing who they just knocked over.

It’s the part of the job I hate, mostly because situations like these are avoidable. There is a reason we don’t call it a ‘Road Traffic Accident’; the term ‘accident’ suggests no one is to blame. Yet over 90% of Road Traffic Collisions are due to human error or carelessness and could have been avoided.

The majority of people think that it won’t happen to them; they won’t be involved in a drink-drive collision. But the reality is that in the North East between 2011 and 2015, one person was killed almost every 6 weeks and one person was injured almost every day as a result of a drink driver. More shockingly, 61% of those injured were not the driver themselves, they were the innocent victims.

So what is the solution? It’s staring us right in the face – reduce the drink-drive limit! Remove the ambiguity surround this ‘80mg of alcohol per 100ml blood’ and align to the rest of Europe to effectively zero. Scotland lowered its limit to 50mg in December 2014 and after 9 months saw a 12.5% reduction in drink-drive offences.

Yes, there are the irresponsible individuals out there who will intentionally drink copious amounts of alcohol then get behind the wheel of a car, but that leaves the rest of us who genuinely have no idea how much alcohol is within the legal limit and may be willing to take that risk.

Between 2013 and 2015 in County Durham, almost 25% of drivers who blew between 22µg/100ml breath (the lower limit in Scotland) and 34µg/100ml breath (just under the lower limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) were involved in a collision. So effectively, had they been breathalysed in Scotland they would have been over the limit and arrested, but because they were breathalysed in England, they weren’t. If our lower limit is reduced to align with Scotland, would this influence people’s decisions to drive after 1 or 2 drinks and eradicate this 25% of avoidable collisions? After all, evidence suggests that driving after just one alcoholic drink makes you more likely to be involved in a collision.

We can’t rely on enforcement alone to reduce the numbers of drink drivers, we need to help our population of drivers make the right decision by reducing the limit, sending a clear message that the only safe drink is a soft drink.

Written by Claire McNaney, Police Officer for Durham Constabulary.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.