Select Committee on European Scrutiny Twenty-Fourth Report


TWENTY-FOURTH REPORT


The European Scrutiny Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

MAXIMUM PERMITTED BLOOD ALCOHOL CONTENT FOR DRIVERS

(22146)
5778/01
COM(00) 4397

Commission recommendation on the maximum permitted blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers of motorised vehicles.


Legal base:
Department:Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Basis of consideration: Minister's letter of 20 March 2002
Previous Committee Report: HC 28-ix (2000-01), paragraph 2 (21 March 2001)
Discussed in Council: 5 April 2001
Committee's assessment:Legally and politically important
Committee's decision:Not cleared; further information requested



Background

  1.1  In March 2001, the previous Committee left uncleared, pending further information, the Commission Recommendation concerning blood alcohol content (BAC) for motorists. The Recommendation, which has no binding implications for Member States, comprises five specific recommendations on drink-driving limits:

  • all Member States should adopt a legal maximum blood alcohol limit of 0.5 mg/ml or lower for drivers and riders of motor vehicles;

  • a lower limit of 0.2 mg/ml should apply to inexperienced drivers, motorcyclists, drivers of buses and coaches and drivers of vehicles carrying dangerous goods;

  • all Member States should adopt random breath testing;

  • accuracy of breath-testing devices should be harmonised; and

  • Member States and the Commission should collaborate in the fields of research and development, exchange of information and statistics, and publicity.

  1.2  The previous Committee noted that, although the Recommendation was not binding, the United Kingdom was identified as one of the four countries likely to be most affected by some of the recommended measures. The Committee also noted that the proposal to recommend a reduction in the legal maximum BAC level in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, had been around for many years, and that it was not unreasonable to expect the Government to have a view on it, which should have been, but was not, included in the Explanatory Memorandum at the time.

  1.3  The Committee asked the Government for further information on a point relating to subsidiarity and for a reasoned response to each of the Recommendation's proposals and the underlying analysis, in time for it to provide a further report to the House, including an account of the Government's position, before the Transport Council in April 2001. In his reply of 4 April 2001 the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Lord Whitty) mentioned that draft Council conclusions were likely to be adopted by Transport Ministers the following day. The Minister also provided, as requested, further information on the point about subsidiarity. However, no further information was provided in connection with the request for a reasoned response to specific elements of the Recommendation.

The Minister's letter of 20 March 2002

  1.4  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Mr David Jamieson) has now written to inform us formally of the Government's decision not to make a change to the limit in the United Kingdom. He said:

    "The Government has considered this matter for some time. As you are aware, we undertook a consultation in 1998 on the possibility of lowering the limit. The results of that indicated substantial support for a reduction although there was some opposition to it. A particular quandary thrown up by that consultation was that those in favour of a reduction from 80mg to 50mg tended to favour the retention of the existing penalty rather than a lesser penalty at the lower level. This would put us even more out of line with the rest of Europe, where there are few countries that disqualify drink drivers at lower levels of alcohol.

    "I am not persuaded on the basis of last year's road accident figures (and certainly not the very limited Christmas ones) that the trend has turned upward. I do accept that the downward trend has probably flattened out and the numbers of deaths and injuries due to alcohol are unnecessarily high. But we shall look closely at the 2001 figures later this year and undertake further investigation of where the problems are occurring so that we can target remedial measures.

    "May I briefly say how we are planning to tackle drink drive over the next few years.

    "We have already extended our £2m annual drink­driving publicity campaigns to run at different times and in a variety of media throughout the year. More detailed market research should also enable us to concentrate campaigns more closely on targeted groups, such as younger, male drivers.

    "We plan to introduce stronger powers for the police to enforce drink­drive laws, such as evidential roadside breath testing. We have changed the law to make drivers who cause death while under the influence of alcohol re­take an extended driving test at the end of their period of disqualification (and prison sentence, which is usually imposed). And we shall be considering further use of retesting for drink drive offenders, especially recidivists. We already have drink­drive rehabilitation courses as a sentencing option for courts throughout Great Britain as means to discourage reoffending. The benefits of extending the scheme throughout Great Britain should begin to be seen in the next year or so. And we are also interested in exploring the effectiveness of breath alcohol interlock devices as a means of preventing reoffending. We would like to begin a research project later this year.

    "There are a variety of tools in place to deal with drink driving but we are not complacent about this; we are improving our efforts to combat drink driving. But I have to say that we have been seriously concerned about jeopardising the public acceptability that our drink­driving regime commands among the generally law abiding motoring public. And we are, as you will be aware, particularly focussed on the problem of speeding at this time as a major contributory factor in road accidents. But you may be assured that we shall keep the matter under review."

Conclusion

  1.5  There are three aspects of the Minister's reply that we find highly unsatisfactory.

  1.6  First, we are concerned that the Minister's letter of 20 March 2002 informing us about the Government's plans not to reduce the maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for motorists was sent three days after the Government's decision had been published in the Sunday Times. We ask the Minister for his observations on how the information reached the press three days before the letter to us had been signed by him.

  1.7  Secondly, we point out to the Minister that the scrutiny reserve applies to a range of EC documents, including those like the Commission Recommendation which are non-binding. Although it has still not been cleared, the document has been adopted in Council. The Minister has not provided any explanation for this breach of the scrutiny reserve resolution.

  1.8  Thirdly, we are dissatisfied that we have still not received, as requested in March 2001, a reasoned response to each of the specific recommendations. The Minister mentions that he is not persuaded that road accident figures for last year and the Christmas period show any upturn. This is not a detailed or reasoned response to a recommendation for reducing the maximum BAC limit. It is unclear why the Minister has ignored the Commission's report which formed the basis of the case for lowering the maximum BAC limit in countries such as the UK. For example, as the previous Committee noted, the Commission estimates that if uniform BAC limits were enforced effectively, road fatalities could be reduced by 10%. This would represent a saving of about 1,000 lives annually, or 2½% of the total number of fatalities. The Commission also estimates that two-thirds of the lives saved are likely to be drivers over the BAC limit, with the remaining one-third comprising "sober" drivers and passengers.

  1.9  Our requests to the Minister for further information are straightforward. We set them out below:

  • Is it the case that, all other things being equal, lowering the maximum BAC limit in the UK, as recommended by the Commission and the Transport Council, would lead to a fall in the expected number of fatalities and injuries on UK roads?

  • If so, could the Minister provide us with the Government's best estimate of the expected number of saved fatalities and injuries and details of the Government's analysis for calculating such an effect?

  • Could additional measures, such as those to improve enforcement of limits and publicity campaigns to deter drink-driving, which are the Government's preferred options, be successfully combined with a lower drink-drive limit?

  1.10  We request a prompt reply on these points.



 
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Prepared 26 April 2002