Drink-drive limits are low enough

Posted on August 12, 2015

New figures for the number of drink-drive accidents in 2013 were released last week by the Department for Transport. The figures estimate there were between 220 and 260 deaths in drink-drive accidents, making up 14 per cent of all road fatalities - much the same level as in 2012. There were also a total of 8,270 casualties of all severities in drink-drive accidents - down 17 per cent from the previous year.

These figures should be treated with some caution. There's no way of telling from them how many accidents were caused by excess alcohol. All we know is that at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit. In 2013, that limit was 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood across the UK. What we do know for sure is that the number of such accidents and fatalities is now just a fraction of what it was in the past. In 1979, there were 31,340 casualties and 1,640 fatalities in drink-drive accidents. That's almost seven times as many deaths in 1979 as in 2013.

No doubt, the social stigma around drinking and driving is much greater than in the past, but cars with better brakes and safety systems played a huge role, too, as indicated by the enormous fall in road accidents generally. For example, the total number of road accidents of any severity fell from 254,967 in 1979 to 138,660 in 2013 - that is, roughly halved. However the number of fatalities annually fell by nearly three-quarters, from 5,824 to 1,608, during the same period.

All of this occurred during a period when the distance travelled on roads increased from 159 billion miles (yes, billion) in 1979 to 303 billion miles in 2013. In fact, those distances travelled offer the potential for another insight: fatal road accidents are astonishingly rare. In 1979, there was one fatality every 27.3 million miles travelled - a low risk by any stretch. But in 2013, there was one fatality every 188 million miles travelled. Even allowing for a substantial increase in risk due to having a drink - someone at twice the current legal limit is about 25 times more likely to have an accident - that is still a remarkably small risk.

This should be a moment to celebrate our ever-safer roads. Instead campaigners are demanding even lower legal limits. In Scotland the SNP government has already reduced the legal limit to 50mg per 100ml of blood, about one pint of beer. But Brake, a road-safety campaign group, wants this lowered to 20mg per 100ml of blood, effectively making it impossible to drink anything at all before driving.

This is bordering on the fanatical. The figures suggest driving after a moderate amount of alcohol is still, in common sense terms, very safe. (Drinking after a lot of alcohol may not be terribly dangerous in statistical terms, but it is still irresponsible - indeed, quite stupid, even for the driver involved - to get behind the wheel of a fast-moving machine in such circumstances.)

'Better safe than sorry' seems to be the watchword - but without any consideration of the consequences of such a limit. Rural pubs, already suffering, would be all but wiped out. Thousands of motorists creating no discernible extra risk would be criminalised and lose the ability to get around in their own vehicles. The freedom of millions of people would be curtailed. Few, if any, additional deaths or injuries would be avoided.

Cutting drink-drive limits is very bad policy and should be resisted.