Drink Driving Laws: Time For A Discussion?

By Alexander Leslie

Drinking and driving should never be mixed. But the laws that are created for when it inevitably happens will never be perfect. A one-size-fits-all policy will never work, and a zero-tolerance policy sounds promising, but in effect, it is largely impractical (more on this later). So, what is the solution? Well, this article won’t attempt to answer that. Instead, I’d like to focus on the efficiency of the drink-driving laws that are already in place and present the options available.

The one-size-fits-all policy adopted by most countries in the world but fails to take several important factors into account. The most important of these is that alcohol intake varies by person. Even the most obvious of assumptions – such as that a ten stone person will need to drink less to become intoxicated than a twenty stone person, are not always applicable. Alcohol level can even vary by day for the same person, as I’m sure everyone has experienced that shameful feeling of tipsiness after 3 pints. As of 2020, the UK (excluding Scotland) law states you must have no more than 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. This is roughly estimated to be equivalent to about two small glasses of wine to a regular person, and, if you’re a student, I’d bet you know a few people who you wouldn’t trust driving a car even after drinking less. The Scottish law may be lower at only 50mg per 100ml, but when the legal limit of blood alcohol level is reduced, the margin for error increases (again, more on this later).

The cost of relevant criminal justice and medical costs of drink driving cost the taxpayer £109m in 2001, or £160m adjusted for inflation. Additionally, THINK! and other Government-sponsored drink-driving campaigns cost the taxpayer upwards of £25m between 2007 and 2014. And while drink-driving deaths may have fallen from 410 in 2007 to 240 in 2011, that equates to, on average, less than 100 deaths a year, with no conclusive evidence of the campaign’s effects. The link to state-sponsored campaigns comes into further question when you consider the Government clampdown on drink driving during this time, including the closing of a prominent loophole, and a substantial increase in enforcement.

And the UK taxpayer is not the only one who needs to ask questions about the allocation of his funds. Despite America’s drink-driving laws being slightly more lenient than the UK’s, during 2018-19, the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts threw out more than 30,000 inadmissible breath tests due to incompetency. And, on the other hand, a Romanian man had his license confiscated after a roadside test concluded he had been drink-driving, despite being later proven to have produced a false positive test after eating two apples and a banana. Despite this fact, the Romanian Government, which adopts a zero-tolerance policy, fined him almost £250 and held his license for three months. The driver’s blood alcohol-level of 0.07% would have been enough to place him above the limit even in Scotland.

So, again, what is the solution? The UK government is currently, among other things, focusing on reducing the margin of error. Despite the fact that less than 1 out of every 1,000 drivers listed a drink driving offence on their insurance in 2019, the UK Government sees it fit to set a £350,000 bounty to any companies that develop a mobile breathalyser. Perhaps the reduced margin of error would increase efficiency, though I find this doubtful. There is one option that hasn’t been mentioned yet, which is complete decriminalisation. And while this may seem a little extreme, consider this metaphor. Dennis Prager, the founder of prominent conservative YouTube channel Prager University, suggested that if there is no God, murder cannot be considered immoral. Seems a little extreme, right? That’s because it is. I don’t need a God to tell me not to take a life, and neither does anyone else. Apply this logic to, say, drink-driving. Does anyone need a law to tell them not to drink and drive? There already is one, and people ignore it. I know I wouldn’t drink five pints and get behind the wheel if drink-driving was decriminalised tomorrow, and I don’t know anyone that would. Sure, you would get the minority who would ruin it for everyone, but those people already exist – they’re just (rightfully) demonised already through the courts. And while this option may not be the most proactive, It is one of the better options in terms of the efficiency of taxpayer money compared to alcohol-related driving offences.

Please let me know your thoughts on the matter below or by tweeting me, @RealAXLeslie

1. Olivia Waring, ‘How many drinks can you have before you’re over the driving limit?’, Metro (19 Mar 2018) Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2018/03/19/many-drinks-can-driving-limit-7399703/ (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

2. C. Snowdon, ‘Alcohol and the Public Purse’, IEA Discussion Papers, 63 (2015), p. 15. Available at: https://iea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/DP_Alcohol%20and%20the%20public%20purse_63_amended2_web.pdf (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

3 Department for Transport, ‘Drink drive costs FOI response’ London: UK Government, 2014. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/291955/drink-drive-costs.pdf (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

4 Department for Transport, ‘Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2012 Annual Report’ London: UK Government, 2013. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/269601/rrcgb-2012-complete.pdf (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

5 Department for Transport, ‘The Government's Response to the Reports by Sir Peter North CBE QC and the Transport Select Committee on Drink and Drug Driving’ London: UK Government, 2011. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/4429/report.pdf (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

6 S. Cowley, J. Silver-Greenberg, ‘These Machines Can Put You In Jail. Don’t Trust Them.’ The New York Times (3 Nov 2019). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/03/business/drunk-driving-breathalyzer.html (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

7 Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Foreign travel advice Romania, London: UK Government, 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/romania/safety-and-security (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

8 S. Roman, ‘Șofer prins cu alcoolemie de 0,07, după ce a mâncat două mere și o banană. Ce sancțiune a primit’ Banatulazi (4 Feb 2020)

‘Available at: https://www.banatulazi.ro/sofer-prins-cu-alcoolemie-de-007-dupa-ce-a-mancat-doua-mere-si-o-banana-ce-sanctiune-a-primit/ (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

9 MoneySuperMarket, ‘Drink & Drug Driving Hot Spots’ Available at: https://www.moneysupermarket.com/car-insurance/drink-driving-convictions/ (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)

10 Department for Transport, ‘Drink drivers face swifter justice with new roadside breathalysers’, London: UK Government, 2011. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/drink-drivers-face-swifter-justice-with-new-roadside-breathalysers (Accessed 16 Nov 2020)