A new analysis of police data has revealed that both the number of officers on England’s roads and the number of breath tests they have conducted have fallen by a quarter in the last five years.

Published today by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, ‘Running on empty: Drink-driving law enforcement in England’ assesses nationally published breath test figures alongside Freedom of Information (FoI) responses from 35 police constabularies on the levels of resources and enforcement committed to dealing with drink-driving.

Reported figures show that anti-drink-driving enforcement activity has fallen over the last five years, as frontline officers have found themselves stretched, performing the duties of other services. The number of dedicated Roads Policing Officers reduced by 27% between 2011/12 and 2015/16, and that there were 25% fewer breath tests in 2015 than in 2011 – a drop of 149,677 breath tests. If breath testing had been maintained at 2011 levels, there would have been over a quarter of million (260,681) more breath tests performed during this period. The average roads policing budget for forces also steadily declined, by almost a million pounds per force.

These figures have emerged among a backdrop of no significant changes to drink drive deaths in the UK since 2010. England and Wales stand apart from all other nations in Europe – including Scotland and Northern Ireland – in having a drink drive limit of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood; other nations’ limits are 50mg/100ml or lower. In addition to greater enforcement, research suggests that if England and Wales followed suit, lowering the limit would save at least 25 lives and prevent 95 serious casualties a year, and £800 million in costs.

Such a move is also supported by road safety charities, publicans, and the public – the latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed more than three-quarters (77%) of people are in favour of a lower limit.

Commenting on the findings, RAC Road Safety Spokesman Pete Williams said:

‘Falling roads traffic police officer numbers are stretching forces and one impact of this appears to be a reduction in breathalyser tests which is a worrying development. RAC research has found that around five million drivers believe they have got behind the wheel while over the limit at least once in the past year.

‘Our research also found there is extensive general public support for a UK-wide reduction in the legal blood-alcohol limit to 50 milligrams – as enforced in Scotland – or even to 20 milligrams, with six in 10 (59%) British motorists saying they are in favour of this becoming law.’

The report’s policy recommendations for the UK Government are:

  • Lower the drink drive limit to 50mg alcohol/100ml blood: England and Wales are an outlier in Europe (and indeed, much of the world). Evidence has demonstrated reducing the limit to 50mg/100ml would be a life-saving measure
  • Enhanced enforcement of drink-driving law: including enhanced powers for police to conduct random roadside breath-testing of drivers and the introduction of Mobile Evidential Breath Testing Equipment to avoid delays in testing samples once drivers are pulled over
  • Mass media public education campaigns to ensure understanding of the dangers and penalties of drink-driving: High profile mass media campaigns are needed to properly communicate drink-driving law, as well as the dangers of drink-driving. These campaigns should be government run, rather than industry partnerships

Dame Vera Baird QC, who represents Northumbria as the police and crime commissioner for the region, welcomed the report suggestions, citing the fact that a recent survey of North East public opinion (carried out by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office) concluded that 84% of the region’s population backed the reduction in the drink drive limit.

She said: ‘I have campaigned over many years to reduce the drink drive limit – it is important that our roads are safe and that we do everything possible to prevent needless loss of life. It is well evidenced that the risk of road traffic injury and collision increases rapidly with alcohol consumption. A lowering of the current drink drive limit in England and Wales from 80mg alcohol/100ml blood to 50mg alcohol/100ml blood would improve road safety and save hundreds of lives.

‘Every road accident puts further pressure on our emergency services and hospital admissions. I agree with the Local Government Association’s estimate that lowering the current drink drive limit to 50mg would save almost £300 million annually which could be reinvested back in to our emergency services.’

Responding to the Daily Telegraph, a government official said: ‘Police have the powers they need to keep our roads safe and latest figures show that deaths as a result of drink-driving on British roads are at a record low.

‘It is for chief constables and locally elected police and crime commissioners to decide how to deploy their resources in response to local priorities.

‘This government has protected overall police spending in real terms since the 2015 Spending Review. In 2017/18, the taxpayer is investing £11.9billion in our police system, an increase of more than £475million from 2015.’

John Scruby, trustee for the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving (CADD), challenged this. He said: ‘The current government claim that more robust, intelligence-led policing, and targeting regular drink-drivers, will do the job. What, may I ask, is the difference between a regular drink-driver and a first time drink-driver? Both pose the same risk to other road users.

‘Ask any driver what the drink drive limit is and 99% won’t be able to tell you correctly. Each and every one however, will know that the safe limit is none at all!’

IAS Chief Executive Katherine Brown said:

‘This report highlights the damaging impact of police cuts on the ability of roads officers to do their job properly and enforce the law against drink-driving. Where enforcement levels are on the wane, more public campaigns would raise awareness about the dangers of drink-driving, and a lower drink drive limit would provide a cost-effective way of limiting the risk of people getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.

‘While budgets continue to be squeezed, approximately 200 lives are being lost on our roads to drink-drivers every year, and although the Department for Transport says that is “200 too many“, stripping police forces of the resources needed to tackle drink-driving may lead to worse outcomes in future.

‘The UK has made great progress on drink-driving in the last 50 years; now our drink drive strategy is in need of an update for the next 50.’