BIG DEBATE on drink-driving’s 50th anniversary: Zero tolerance or ‘one for the road’

One for the road... just how many is too much to drive?

One for the road... just how many is too much to drive? - Credit: Archant

Exactly 50 years ago the Government launched a TV ad campaign urging motorists not to drink and drive. A legal limit was introduced in 1964 of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to reduce Britain’s annual road death toll. The Grim Reaper’s tally has been going down year-on-year ever since. The safety lobby, however, wants to go further. Campaigners on Monday—the start of Road Safety Week—called for the limit to be reduced by 75 per cent, down to 20mg. But motoring groups say the “anti-libertarian” move ignores scientific evidence that the ‘danger’ limit is as high as 95mg. That’s why, they point out, the limit was set at 80mg...

Julie Townsend and Brian Gregory

Julie Townsend and Brian Gregory - Credit: Archant


Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of the Brake road safety campaign, explains why she would really like a total alcohol ban on anyone getting behind the wheel:


‘Don’t ask a man to drink and drive’ is what the government urged us with the first-ever public information film on drink-driving 50 years ago.

Since then, drivers over the legal limit have killed 25,000 and seriously injured 130,000.

Casualties have fallen dramatically since the first ad in 1964 — but drink-driving remains a big killer on our roads.

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We at Brake are using the anniversary to call for a zero-tolerance to stamp it out for good. Drivers should not have anything alcoholic at all.

Public education is critical to tackle road deaths and injuries, not just those caused by drink-driving, so it is vital the government continues to fund this work.

But it is shocking that many drivers may continue getting behind the wheel after a drink, causing unacceptable death and horrendous suffering for those who are left bereaved or injured.

That is why we need a zero-tolerance drink-drive limit, tougher penalties and enhanced policing to enforce it.

Think how many more lives will be destroyed or ruined if we don’t act. The 1964 ad with its appeal to women not to let their husbands drink and drive was a product of its time, but its message remains as relevant as ever. Men to this day account for three-quarters of drink-drive casualties.

What has changed is the message about how much is too much.

The 1964 ad warns of the risks of drivers having four to six whiskies.

Today, our ‘not a drop’ campaign urges drivers to stay off booze altogether.

Casualties have fallen over the last three decades from 1,640 killed in 1979 to 230 by 2012. That’s one-in-eight deaths compared to one-in-four in 1979, partly thanks to public education campaigns.

We at ‘Brake’ campaign for a zero-tolerance drink-drive limit of 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

We are urging all political parties to put this in their 2015 General Election manifesto.



But Brian Gregory, founding member and director of the Alliance of British Drivers, point out that 50 years of government publicity is working with road deaths reducing year-on-year, so tampering with the current legal limit won’t save lives:


Reducing the legal alcohol limit for drivers cannot guarantee a single life would ever be saved, but would adversely affect us in other ways.

Most alcohol-related fatal accidents involve drivers exceeding the limit of 110mg of alcohol to 100ml of blood who would unlikely be affected by a total ban—other than they may as well be “hanged for a sheep as a lamb” attitude.

The only large-scale study of alcohol consumption and road accident risk was the 1964 Borkenstein study in the US, showing that the risk was actually reduced at levels under 40 mg per 100ml.

Only above 95mg was there a significant adverse effect on accident risk. Hence the choice of 80mg per 100ml as the legal limit.

Lowering the limit further to a level at which there is barely a significant difference means drivers who are physiologically indistinguishable from a stone-cold sober person are going to lose their licences and possibly livelihoods for no good reason.

This is objective, scientific evidence—as opposed to emotive but scientifically-unsound arguments by the anti-drink lobby.

The Borkenstein findings showed “a drinker is more out of commission when blood-alcohol level is climbing than when it is falling.”

So a “morning after” driver at the 81mg level, one above the legal limit, could be less affected than a driver at 79mg immediately after having consumed alcohol while the level is still rising.

This brings into serious question all so-called “morning after” convictions. The government must commission a more scientific research before adhering to the ‘zero tolerance’ lobby’s anti-libertarian proposal.

Penalties for breaking UK drink-drive laws are already among the stiffest in the world.

There is nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by tampering with a system that actually works—“if it ain’t broke, don’t waste resources fixing it.”