Gearing up for a lower drink driving limit

Kenny MacAskill MSP
Tuesday, 29 December 2015

It’s argued that the most effective laws are those that help change the behaviour causing concern in our communities. Not only is the offence prosecuted less, as it diminishes in frequency. The public alter the behaviour that had been causing it. Both – the judicial system and society – benefit from that attitudinal shift.

The reduction of the drink drive limit in Scotland is a good example. It’s both working to reduce convictions and succeeding in altering behaviour.

Lowering the limit

In December last year, Scotland lowered its drink drive limit from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood after the powers to do so were finally devolved. This leaves England and Wales, along with Malta, as the only EU countries still at the higher level.

The proposal to lower the limit had been debated both sides of the border for many years. The North Report, commissioned by a UK Government, had recommended such a move in 2010. Only north of the border was there any appetite for action.

A tale of two drink drive campaigns

The impact of the changes was evident almost immediately. Last year’s festive season saw a tale of two drink drive campaigns.

In England and Wales, significantly fewer people were breathalysed due, it was said, to a shift to an intelligence-led approach. Of those tested, a greater percentage proved positive: up from 3.4 to 4.4 percent. More worryingly, the increase was up from 3.9 to 6.3 percent for under 25s.

In Scotland there was a modest reduction in the number of breath tests administered. There was also a modest decline in positive tests, from 2.1 to 2 percent. That decline in Scotland has continued. The recent figures for the 9 month period since the new regime was instigated show a decline of 12.5 percent in offences, compared with the previous year.

Attitudes have changed, as publicans and licensees will testify. Anecdotally, bars and golf clubs complain of a loss of business. Gone are the routine couple of pints for many, whether after work or the round of golf. The financial effect on many has been significant, but perhaps a change to coffee and food provision is long overdue.

The days of having one or two drinks, or even more depending on your size and weight or the measure of the drink, are gone. Moreover, those who might have indulged in another pint, followed by a walk round the block for their car, or an extra glass of wine as they were having a desert, have been saved from their own foolhardiness.

Finally, the consequences the morning after the night before are now routinely considered, not ignored.

The maxim of don’t drink and drive has taken hold, as had been the case across the Irish Sea when similar changes were made there, both sides of the Border. That can be no bad thing and it has managed to take public opinion with it. A recent survey found that 82 percent of Scots believed that drinking any alcohol before driving was unacceptable.

Lower the limit further

The new lower limit should only be a staging post. As with other jurisdictions in Europe, the limit should go lower still. After all, there is now an anomaly between various modes of transport. You can’t pilot a plane, drive a train or steer a ferry with a reading above 35mg; but, you can drive a 44 tonne truck on a busy motorway network or a crowded bus in a bustling city.

That can’t be right.

Going to a reading of zero is impractical, given human physiology and a reading being possible in some circumstances without any alcohol being consumed; never mind potential legal challenges given the morning’s mouthwash or even last night’s sherry trifle.

But other changes could and should be invoked. Certain categories of driving, such as heavy goods and public service vehicles, could be given a lower limit. This would end an anomaly, improve public safety and change an attitude, in some, that significant alcohol consumption, even the night before, is still possible or acceptable when working the following day.

More broadly, a limit of 20mg – which is used, for example, in Sweden – could be applied. There, the penalty regime between that level and 50mg is far less severe. That’s necessary to ensure that public opinion remains supportive. A firm response to a reading in the low 50s might not be appropriate for a reading in the low 20s. This is as much about changing attitudes as enforcing penalties.

The don’t drink and drive message has taken hold in Scotland with the lowering of the limit to 50mg. That, though, should just be part of the journey. It should go lower still. For that Scotland, requires the powers to vary the penalties.

England and Wales, meanwhile, need to get into gear.

Kenny MacAskill MSP is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Eastern. Between 2007 and 2014 he was the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice.