Fingers crossed a season to be jolly - but not to drink drive

Torbay Weekly

This year, unlike Christmas 2020, we might be able to have parties, lateral flow tests and omicron permitting, but is it also a time when some people think it’s ok to have a few drinks before driving home?

This summer the number of people killed or seriously injured in crashes involving alcohol hit an eight-year high.

The figures for 2019 were also worrying. There were over 2,000 serious injuries and deaths when at least one driver was over the limit. 230 people died.

As is so often the case, nothing is new. The first person arrested for driving a motor vehicle when drunk was in 1897, although the law also included being drunk in charge of cattle, horses or a steam engine. By 1925, people had to have a driving licence. Drunk drivers could then be banned for a year.

In 1930, the definition of “being drunk” was clarified and in 1960 the law used today’s wording making it an offence to drive “while unfit to drive through drink or drugs.”

The Road Traffic Act of 1962 allowed blood, urine or breath to be used for alcohol analysis, but there was no specified level of alcohol.  All these laws relied on the subjective impression of the Police Surgeon; the classic ‘walking a straight line’ test.

Some people, usually men, argued “I’m ok to drive after a few drinks.” Fortunately, this myth was debunked by some excellent medical research. In the 1964 Grand Rapids Study in America, researchers took blood from 5,895 drivers who had accidents and another 7,590 who were driving at the same time and in the same place but without an accident.

I am not sure how they persuaded so many innocent drivers to give blood, but it was incredibly useful. When the alcohol level exceeded 40mg/100 mls in blood, there was an increase in accidents rising rapidly over 80mgs and extremely high over 150mgs. The higher the alcohol level, the worse the accident.

A further case control study was carried out at Long Beach, California in 1967 with the same results.

As a result, in 1967 Barbara Castle introduced another Road Safety Act, making it an offence to drive with an alcohol level above 80mgs/100 mls of blood. There was no need for a doctor to examine the accused. However “sober” they appeared, if the level was above 80mgs/100 mls, they were guilty.

Despite the evidence, the law was very unpopular. One MP asked, “How can a woman possibly understand anything about driving”, a comment which might set Twitter alight today.

The law was opposed by publicans, many politicians and even motoring organisations. It was seen as an attack on civil liberties.

Even some magistrates were against the law, so that statutory punishments were put in place; everyone found guilty lost their driving licence.

Barbara Castle was proved right. In 1967, out of 7,319 road deaths, 1,640 were associated with drink driving. By 2015, this figure had fallen to 200.

Culture has changed and most people do not drink and drive but, sadly, there now appears to be an increase.

When I worked with the Police, I took a number bloods from alleged drink drivers but, today a blood test is not needed. There is an accurate breath test machine which gives immediate results. Sadly, many drink drivers are also wealthy and use expensive lawyers to argue their case.

There is also good evidence that anyone caught more than once may have an alcohol problem. Many repeat offenders need help with their drinking and should not be allowed anywhere near the driving seat.

Setting the legal alcohol level for driving in 1967 at the 80mgs/ 100 mls of blood was reasonable but things have moved on in the last 65 years. England now has the highest legal limit in the world. Even Scotland have cut their legal limit to 50 and in some countries it is 20mgs/100mls.

Let’s hope Covid allows Christmas Parties. Enjoy a trip to the pub but, unless someone is willing to act as the driver and not drink, there are plenty of taxi firms in the Bay.