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Lower the limit and save lives

Graham Buxton writes Drink-drivers killed and injured more people last year than they had for a decade.

The Department of Transport's recently published figures show that in 2000, 520 people died in accidents where the driver proved to be over the limit compared to 460 in 1999 – a rise of well over 10 per cent. 17,500 people were injured in such crashes – 1,000 more than in 1999.

A spokesman for Brake, the road safety organisation, said, "It is absolutely atrocious that deaths resulting from drink-driving have gone up, especially as road deaths have gone down overall. There has been a decade of drink-driving education but something seems to have gone wrong this yearThe Government needs to find out which sectors of society are offending and target its messages to suit them."

The Government needs to do more than that. It needs to take the obvious step of reducing the legal limit from 80 to 50 mgs per cent. That was its avowed intention when in opposition and it has yet to come up with convincing reasons why it abandoned this view once in power. Three years ago, in the last edition of 1998, Alert warned its readers that a lot of back-pedalling was taking place. Ministers, it was reported, were by then refusing to commit the Government to lowering the limit. Lord Whitty, who then had responsibility for roads, said that he could not say "which way the wind was blowing". John Reid, then the Transport Minister, launching 1998's Christmas "Don't Drink and Die" campaign in a pub on Horseferry Road, side-stepped the issue, saying that the issue of lowering the limit was irrelevant as it was wisest not to consume any alcohol when driving. Dr Reid may have been vague, but within hours of the launch the transport editor of The Guardian, a newspaper with good government sources, felt able to write that plans "to reduce the legal blood alcohol level from 80 mgs to 50 mgs are to be abandoned by the Government". The Transport Minister said of the 1998 campaign that he believed "that using real cases drives the message home". As Alert pointed out, "Those people who die in drink-driving accidents when they are somewhere between 50 mgs and the present limit are real cases".

By March 2000, ironically just as the death toll was rising towards that appalling 520 mark, the decision was made. The policy that, "for the time being", the limit would remain at 80 mgs per cent was set out in the Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions (DETR) document, Tomorrow's Roads: safer for everyone. "Safer for some" might have been more accurate. DETR's own consultation showed that there was a majority in favour of the lower limit. Opinion surveys at the same time indicated that 75 per cent of the public want a 50 mg limit or one which was even lower. This, however, cut no ice at the Department. DETR's report on the consultation, which was published separately from Tomorrow's Roads, stressed the opposition of two groups: the alcohol industry and rural communities generally. Organisations lined up as follows: against a lower limit were the brewers, distillers and other drink manufacturers, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Road Haulage Association, and the national association of local councils. For the lower limit were the Automobile Association, the British Medical Association, the Royal Society for the prevention of Accidents, the Magistrates' Association, the Transport Research Laboratory, and the Honourary Medical Advisory Panel on Alcohol. In passing, it is worth mentioning that, whilst the opposition of the drink industry is perfectly understandable, that of the Road Haulage Association deserves some consideration. When the Association rejects a 50 mg limit it is, presumably, speaking within its own remit and the inference can only be that it is happy for lorry drivers to thunder along our roads after drinking a couple of pints.

Tomorrow's Roads passed the buck to Brussels: "However, there is a European context to this debate [on the desirability of lowering the limit]. The European Commission is currently reviewing its existing proposal for a Directive on the drink-drive limit. Though we do not yet have details, it is likely there will be continued pressure for a harmonised 50 mg overall limit in Europe, and possibly even lower limits for specific categories of driver. If the UK acted unilaterally, we could end up having to readjust to new European regulations soon afterwards." There was no mention of adopting a positive attitude and pressing the Commission to speed up its Directive along with its anticipated lower limit.

The same line was taken earlier this year when I was in correspondence with the Road Safety Division of the Department of Transport, Local Government, and the Regions. The official concerned explained that the European Commission Recommendation is "not confined to the single issue of a harmonised 50 mg limit but also concerns a number of related proposals, including the possibility of even lower limits for specified categories of drivers". The implication is again that we cannot take any measure unless it is being implemented throughout the Union.

But the 50 mg limit is already in place in the vast majority of member countries and, besides, any administrative difficulties – though it is hard to see how they could be so great – must be outweighed by the cost in lives and injury which delay is causing. My correspondent tells me that the proposals before the EC "all require very careful consideration", the sort of formula civil servants traditionally employ when they mean "we are going to delay this for as long as possible".

He goes on to say, "The Government also wishes to ensure that the wide range of views expressed during the previous consultation on drink-driving proposals is taken fully into account in reaching a final decision." How long do they need? The various opinions are quite clear. The drink industry does not want a lower limit, medical and road safety experts do.

Surely the alarming rise in deaths and injuries caused by drunken drivers must move the Government to act? To do nothing is to accept a dreadful responsibility.

Graham Buxton was the co-founder of the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving.