Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report


  20.    In April 1997, the European Commission launched its programme to promote road safety in the European Union which included the revival of the 1988 draft Directive to harmonise the permitted blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for drivers at 50mg/100ml[1]. The European Commissioner for Transport, Neil Kinnock, raised the matter at the October 1997 Transport Council and around that time gave several interviews to the British media supporting the proposal.


  21.    The 1988 draft Directive proposed the harmonisation of the permitted BAC for drivers with the objective of contributing to the reduction in traffic accidents and resulting casualties from drink driving. The Commission argued that the permitted BAC should be set at 50mg/100ml, because drivers suffer impairment at this level. This proposal was considered briefly by the Council of Transport Ministers on 5-6 June 1989 where it met with opposition from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany for two reasons. First, on the grounds that it was not an appropriate area for Community legislation as there was no Community competence to act; and secondly, "the substance of the proposal, namely the proposed BAC limit, was not soundly based"[2]. Subsequently, the proposal made no further progress, but was not formally withdrawn.

  22.    The proposed Council Directive was referred to Sub-Committees B (Energy, Transport and Technology) and E (Law and Institutions) of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. A report by the European Communities Committee in July 1989 concluded that the proposed Council Directive was ultra vires the then Article 75 of the EEC Treaty.


  23.    In reviving the 1988 proposed Directive, the only amendment which Commissioner Kinnock would make to the original proposal would be to alter the date on which it would come into effect[3] (Q 292). According to the Commission, this measure could lead to a drop in the number of people killed on the roads of between 5 and 40 per cent[4]. The wide gap in this estimate reflects the disparities between Member States in how each defines and records road accidents involving illegal levels of alcohol. The Committee notes that the draft Convention on driving disqualifications, dating from 1991, which would effectively remove the right of a driver resident in one Member State and disqualified in another Member State to drive anywhere in the European Union, is still under discussion by Member States[5].


  24.    After the Committee had finished taking evidence, the Government, on 2 February 1998, published a consultation document "Combating Drink Driving-Next Steps" on a series of countermeasures to reduce the incidence of drink driving, including the proposal to lower the permitted BAC for drivers to 50mg/100ml. The results of this consultation should be known sometime after May 1998. In evidence, however, the Government were hesitant about supporting the Commission's initiative in this area. The Minister for Transport, Dr Gavin Strang, stated, "I am not an advocate of a Directive in this area" (Q 255), adding that it was a matter for Member States to set limits.


  25.    Meanwhile, there has been a general trend across many Member States to introduce legislation to lower the permitted BAC for drivers. At the present time, nine Member States have a limit of 50mg/100ml or below, two are passing or introducing legislation to lower the permitted BAC to 50mg/100ml limit, while four Member States, including the United Kingdom, currently have a limit of 80mg/100ml[6]. There has, over recent years, been some convergence towards a common limit of 50mg/100ml across many Member States. There are, however, wide variations in the way Member States enforce their drink drive limits, punish offenders and publicise the dangers of drink driving.

  26.    The Minister commented that "all my colleagues on the Transport Council would be fairly cautious" about imposing a further reduction on the Irish Republic, who recently reduced their limit from 100mg/100ml to 80mg/100ml (Q 251). At the end of the enquiry, the Committee heard evidence from experts from Germany and Sweden who were more positive about the likely level of support from their governments for this proposed Directive.


  27.    The Committee became aware during the enquiry that 14 per cent of road accident fatalities involved illegal levels of alcohol and therefore 86 per cent had other causes[7]. One possible other cause which the Committee noted was drugs and driving, and we took some evidence on this. While this enquiry concentrates on the proposal to reduce the number of accidents caused by drink driving, we bear in mind the other causes of road accidents in both the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole.


  28.    This report re-examines the 1988 draft Directive on harmonising the permitted BAC for drivers at 50mg/100ml, which is still before the Council. Reducing the permitted BAC for drivers is only one of a number of potential countermeasures to drink driving, both in the United Kingdom and across the European Union, and cannot be considered in isolation. We have therefore also examined other countermeasures, in particular, penalties; enforcement; and publicity and education. In reconsidering the draft Directive, we have examined whether European Union involvement in this area is appropriate in the wider and more general context of how to tackle the problem of drink driving. The conclusion of our 1989 report that the proposal was ultra vires has been reversed by subsequent Treaty amendments (see paragraphs 79-80).

  29.    In Part 3 of this report we consider the views of witnesses. In Part 4 we give our opinion and make recommendations.

  30.    The membership of Sub-Committee B, which conducted this enquiry, is given in Appendix 1. Minutes of Proceedings of Sub-Committee B deliberating on the draft Report are printed in Appendix 2. Minutes of proceedings of the European Communities Committee deliberating on the draft Report are printed in Appendix 3. Witnesses are listed in Appendix 4. The text of the original Proposal for a Council Directive relating to the maximum permitted blood alcohol concentration for vehicle drivers (COM(88) 707 final) is printed in Appendix 5. The evidence is printed with this report.

1   50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, equivalent to 0.5 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood. The present limit in the United Kingdom is 80mg/100ml. Back

2   European Communities Committee, 18th Report (1988-89): Blood Alcohol Levels for Drivers (HL 81). Back

3   In the original directive, this date was 1 January 1993. Back

4   Press Release, IP/97/28, 9 April 1997. Back

5   The proposal was considered by Sub-Committee E (Law and Institutions) of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. Back

6   Sweden has a permitted BAC of 20mg/100ml. Austria, Belgium, Denmark (as of 1 March 1998), Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal have a permitted BAC of 50mg/100ml. Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom have a BAC limit of 80mg/100ml. Germany and Spain are currently considering legislation for a 50mg/100ml limit. Back

7   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1997). Road Accidents Great Britain 1996: The Casualty Report. London: TSO. Back

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