Why stricter drink drive laws are wrong

By Kevin Ash - 19/07/2012

The news is that the Scottish government is to lower the drink-drive limit as a priority, bringing forward plans to introduce a 50mg limit in place of the current UK-wide 80mg limit.

It's getting cross party support too, and why not, drink drivers kill people and if it saves lives, then how can you argue against it?

But it's not that simple. The current 80mg limit has been extremely effective, with endless statistics in need of no spin or manipulation proving how the law has saved lives. They've been so convincing, and the law has aligned so well with what the majority of us intuitively feel and know about drink and driving or riding, that it has become genuinely socially unacceptable to drink too much before taking charge of a vehicle.

In the 1970s you'd be considered clever for knowing a route home from the pub that avoided the police, so you can down a few more pints. Now someone would call the police about you, and they'd have a lot of support for that too.

Compare that with speeding, where draconian enforcement of unrealistically restrictive laws has had the opposite effect - few people are bothered about admitting to a speeding conviction on their licence, where they'd hold their heads in shame having to tell someone they have a drunk-driving charge.

A 50mg limit is taking us down the over-enforcement speeding route. While the evidence that an 80mg works is unequivocal, there is little convincing proof that less has a significant effect on our ability to drive. This is at the same level as being a bit tired or being a bit under the weather, so by rights it should also become illegal to drive or ride with a cold.

The statistics do confirm this: nearly 20 per cent of drivers killed have more than 80mg/100ml of alcohol in their blood, yet less than two per cent have between 50mg and 80mg. There's no suggestion either that the alcohol was in any way responsible for these deaths, it just happened to be there.

50mg is at the level where any gains are disproportionate to the effort that must go into enforcing the law and on wider ramifications. It means you'll be borderline legal after one pint of beer, depending on your size and constitution, which means a perfectly harmless drink that endangers no one could lose you your job, get you imprisoned even, lose you your licence and possibly ruin your life.

The mantra that if it saves one life, it's worth it, is shallow thinking and simply not true. All our resources are finite, so if you pour excessive effort into one area, as you would need to here in order to make this silly law work, then it must come away from other areas which would be much more cost and time effective. Speeding enforcement once again shows how this has happened.

A lower alcohol limit will also affect our beloved country pubs, already struggling with the effects of smoking bans and cheap supermarket alcohol. Riding out to one for a half of bitter is hardly worth the effort, and even if you do it's not exactly going to fill the pub's tills. In Scotland where they're further apart as it is, it'll be even less attractive.

The 50mg limit is a politically motivated one designed to make politicians look caring and proactive, but it will achieve nothing except bringing the drink-drive law into disrepute and destroying a powerful cultural change in attitude built up over four decades. No lives will be saved but plenty will be damaged by the law itself.

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