Select Committee on European Communities Report


Letter from the Rt Hon Gavin Strang MP, Minister for Transport, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to Lord Geddes, Chairman of Sub-Committee B (Energy, Industry and Transport)

  Having now considered the Select Committee's report on blood alcohol levels for drivers, I am pleased to be able to enclose a copy of the Government's formal response which, in general, supports the recommendations of the Committee.

  In view of the fact that we are still in the process of evaluating and analysing responses to the consultation exercise on drinking and driving, there are some areas where it has not been possible to give a comprehensive reply. A number of the issues raised by the Committee did not feature in the consultation exercise but are questions which we shall consider. The Committee's report will of course be considered as a contribution to forming policy on this issue.

28 May 1998


  The Government welcomes the Select Committee's inquiry into blood alcohol levels for drivers and notes the Committee's general conclusions. This constructive and thorough Report comes at the same time as the Government's consultation exercise on measures to reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by drinking and driving. Much of the content of the Report is in line with the Government's own analysis of the drink-drive problem.

  The response which follows is set out in the order of the Committee's report. Because the consultation exercise has only recently been concluded and the responses have not been fully analysed and considered, it is not yet possible to give a definite response to all the recommendations.

1.   A package of measures, rather than any single one, would be the most effective way to tackle drink-drive (paragraphs 85 and 115)

  The Government agrees with the Committee's view and the consultation paper presents possible elements of such a package.

2.   There are two main identifiable sub-groups of drink-drivers: those who drive with a BAC well in excess of the legal limit and new young drivers (paragraph 86).

  The Government agrees with the Committee's view that these are amongst the most important categories of drink-driver. Repeat offenders are also a major cause for concern. However, it is important not to ignore the many drink-drivers who fall outside these categories, whose impairment in driving ability creates substantial additional risk on the roads.

3.  . . .emphasis put on reducing the 14 per cent of drink-driving fatalities in Great Britain is out of proportion to the effort put into reducing the other 86 per cent of fatal accidents (paragraph 88).

  The Government does not believe that the current effort put into reducing drink-driving is disproportionate. Roadside surveys have shown that, even in evening drinking hours, only slightly more than 1 per cent of all drivers have blood alcohol limits in excess of 80mg/100ml, yet these drivers are involved in 14 per cent (around one in seven) of fatal road accidents. Drink-driving is therefore one of the main single causes of deaths on the road. Moreover, as an easily identifiable group is concerned, enforcement action can be very cost-effective, which is not necessarily the case for action against other causes of road deaths which also need to be tackled. The Government devotes considerable effort to reducing other causes of accidents, in particular speed, which is estimated to be a factor in around one third of all accidents. Speed enforcement is for instance a major priority for the police, and government expenditure on anti-speed publicity is about £3.5 million compared to nearly £2 million drink-drive publicity. There has been substantial public expenditure on traffic calming measures in recent years, the principal purpose of which is to reduce speed-related casualties. Campaigns this year have highlighted the risks of mobile phone use and a further one is planned to highlight the importance of rear seat-belt wearing.

4.   We, therefore, recommend that more research into the effects of drugs on driving performance is undertaken before policies to reduce the incidence of drugs-driving can be devised (paragraph 89)

  The Government agrees that further research into the effects of drugs is needed in order to devise appropriate countermeasures. The Government is currently midway through a three year study, which started in 1996, into the incidence of drugs (medicinal and illicit) in fatal road casualties. The survey is revealing the prevalence of drugs in fatal casualties and the type of drug most commonly associated with them. The Government is also currently undertaking a trial of roadside drug testing equipment, the findings from which will enable the police to assess the practicality of testing drivers for drug use. The Government is also studying research undertaken in other countries to ensure that valauble findings are used whenever possible. This action is part of the overall strategy for tackling drug misuse on which the Government recently issued a White Paper.

5.  . . . much of the progress made in the United Kingdom in reducing the number of casualties caused by drink-driving annually is due to the stringent penalties imposed on those who disregard the law (paragraph 90).

  The application of strict penalties, combined with sustained enforcement, is certainly one factor which is effective in reducing the number of drink-drive related accidents and subsequent casualties. However, the Government believes that education and publicity have also had and will continue to have a major role to play in changing attitudes towards drinking and driving.

6. and 7.   The permitted BAC for drivers in the United Kingdom should be reduced from 80mg/100ml to 50mg/100ml; and there should be no reduction in the minimum disqualification period of 12 months at the 50mg/100ml level. (paragraphs 114 and 91)

  The Government is minded to reduce the limit, and has, in the consultation paper, sought views on whether there should be a reduction. It has also sought views on the minimum 12 month period of disqualification. It will reach a fianl view in the light of the responses received. The views of the Committee will be taken fully into account in the decision making process.

8.   Second-tier limit should be introduced at 150mg/100ml in the United Kingdom (paragraph 92). At 150mg/100ml, more stringent minimum penalties should apply (paragraph 93)

  The Government agrees that more severe penalties should apply to offenders well over the limit. Those who exceed considerably the existing limit are already dealt with by the High Risk Offenders Scheme. The Government is concerned that this sanction is not widely known about and a proposal is therefore included in the recent consultation paper to give more publicity to this scheme. Moreover, the existing legislation already gives the courts wide discretion to fine "high risk offenders" up to £5,000 or imprison them for up to six months.

  As regards Magistrates' Courts in England and Wales, drink-driving is specifically covered in the Sentencing Guidelines issued by the Magistrates' Association. These were revised and reissued in April 1997. They provide a structured approach to sentencing and suggest proportionately higher fines for those convicted at higher blood alcohol levels with commensurably longer periods of disqualification. At blood alcohol levels above 195mg/100ml the Guidelines suggest that a community penalty should be considered, and for levels above 264mg/100ml they suggest that a custodial sentence be considered.

  Minimum financial or custodial penalties are not normally prescribed in UK law, but there are minimum periods of obligatory driving disqualification. A higher minimum period (3 years) is already prescribed for those who have already been disqualified for a drink-drive offence within the previous 10 years. In the light of the Committee's views, the Government will consider whether there is also a case for prescribing a longer minimum disqualification for offenders with particularly high blood alcohol levels.

9.  . . . we further recommend that the level at which a driver is classified as HRO should be lowered from 200mg to 150mg/100ml and that the other two criteria should remain unchanged (paragraph 98).

  The Government's consultation document did not propose a change in the HRO threshold, as it considered that the current level at which an offender is classed as an HRO on the basis of a single offence was reasonable and that the existing system of penalties adequately addresses those between 80mg/100ml and 200mg/100ml. However the Government takes note of the Committee's view and will reconsider this matter in the context of the consultation exercise. The Government agrees that any increased cost should be borne by offenders.

10.   We recommend that the HRO scheme in the UK should be improved . . . the introduction of a more rigorous examination, over a period of time, involving psychological as well as medical assessment. We also recommend a closer link between the Rehabilitation and HRO schemes in the United Kingdom (paragraph 99).

  The Government will consider this recommendation carefully. It recognises that there are aspects of the current HRO scheme that need attention, and that it is not always able to fulfil its principal purpose—to identify those with persistent drink problems and likely to endanger other road users. It will look carefully at shortcomings in the present procedure identified by witnesses, such as the fact that offenders who are given long advance notice of the date of the medical examination and can temporarily restrain their drinking.

  The HRO scheme pre-dates the introduction of the rehabilitation experiment which was aimed mainly at first time offenders. But some HROs are referred to courses within the rehabilitation experiment and the research findings to date suggest they are obtaining greater benefits than were predicted by doing so. The Government accepts in principle that the two schemes should be more closely linked and will be looking at ways of achieving that in the light of the research into the rehabilitation experiment.

11.  . . . age related legislation would be unworkable. We believe that specific and targeted publicity and education is particularly important in tackling this group (paragraph 100).

  The Government agrees that a lower drink-drive limit for this group of drivers would be doubtful merit. It would also be impractical in the absence of a requirement to carry a licence (if experience based) or other identity giving proof of age (if age-based). We are, in the consultation, seeking views on how publicity and education could be better used to target high risk groups including young and inexperienced drivers.

12.  . . . we support better training for police officers in the powers available to them, as well as greater public education of the extent of these powers (paragraph 102).

  The Government has drawn this recommendation to the attention of the two Associations of Chief Police Officers (respectively for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for Scotland) and welcomes any move to make the public more generally aware of police powers.

13.   The Committee considers that United Kingdom legislation gives the police sufficient powers and, therefore, does not support the introduction of random breath-testing or of unfettered discretion in police powers (paragraphs 103-104). The Committee does, however, support targeted enforcement by the police (paragraph 105).

  The consultation document explained why it has serious reservations about giving unrestricted powers to the police. However it also invites views on the introduction of a limited power for police to test drivers without prior suspicion in certain circumstances.

  The Government has drawn to the attention of the two Associations of Chief Police Officers the recommendations on targeted enforcement at major events, and on the use of intelligence to target convicted drink-drivers who may be driving while disqualified.

14.   The Committee therefore recommends that evidential roadside breath testing be introduced as a priority in the United Kingdom (paragraph 106).

  The Government notes the Committee's recommendation and will consider its technical, resource and legislative implications.

15.   The Committee believe that making road policing in the United Kingdom a core policing objective would not only help to reduce the number of all road accidents annually, but would stimulate increased police activity in enforcing road safety legislation (paragraph 107).

  Although road policing is not one of the Home Secretary's key objectives, these are intended to indicate developments priorities for the coming year and the Home Secretary made it clear in his letter of 3 November 1997 to chief officers of police that he considers traffic policing is a central part of police responsibilities for maintaining law and order and preventing and deterring crime and reducing death and injuries on the roads. The Goverment will continue to consider ways of promoting effective road policing.

16.   The Committee believes that the DETR's 1997 slogan, "None for the Road", is effective in restating the old message of "Don't drink and drive" (paragraph 108).

  The Goverment welcomes the Committee`s endorsement of its campaign and intends to continue its high profile publicity campaigns. It will keep under review the campaign strategy in order to ensure that the right target audiences are reached.

17.   We believe that education and publicity about the dangers of drink driving could encourage a greater degree of personal responsibility. Whilst education on the effects of alcohol on driving performance is included in the general education about alcohol in personal and social education in United Kingdom schools, we consider that the specific problems of combining drinking and driving should be emphasised (paragraph 109).

  The Government supports this recommendation. All relevant UK Government Departments are co-operating to ensure that the drink-driving message is given due weight along with other messages about sensible drinking. There is evidence that the message is effectively conveyed to young people both before and after they take up driving. Nevertheless the Government is considering ways of disseminating this information still more effectively.

18.   In our opinion, the increased use of self-test breathalysers and ignition interlock devices could have a positive effect (paragraph 110).

  The Government at present has an open mind regarding these matters and will take careful note of the Committee`s view, as well as views expressed in response to the consultation paper.

19.   In the absence of compelling evidence as to the "clear benefits" for the Community, we do not support the proposed Directive harmonising drink driving limits at 50mg/100ml across the European Union. We consider that setting the permitted BAC level for drivers is a matter for Member State governments (paragraph 116).

  The Government has no reached a final view on the case for harmonisation of the drink-drive limit across the European Union.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999