Drink-drive limit set to fall

A new lower drink-drive limit will come into effect on 5 December 2014. This will be 50 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood.

However, this will only take effect in Scotland and not in England, Wales or Northern Ireland – but a lowering of the limit for the whole of the UK may occur at some stage in the future albeit not imminently.

The new 50mg/100ml alcohol/blood level will replace the current limit, the maximum 80 mg/100ml alcohol/blood ratio. It means that a driver with a level of 50 to 80 mg of alcohol who is driving, attempting to drive or is ‘in charge of’ a vehicle, commits no offence in England but offends in Scotland or offends having driven into Scotland when using the vehicle in Scotland.

What does this translate to in terms of how much you can drink?

In terms of ‘safe’ (perhaps a misnomer) alcohol consumption, a single pint of beer or a glass of wine in Scotland may well be sufficient to take a driver through the alcohol limit. Many beers or ciders are relatively strong and it is entirely normal for a glass of wine to be served in a measure of 175ml (a quarter of a standard bottle of wine) or 250ml ( a third of a bottle) – so wherever you are in the UK there is already substantial risk of breaking the 80mg limit after one drink.

Driving bans

It should be remembered that there is a mandatory minimum 12-month driving disqualification for almost all drink-drive related offences (36 months for a second offence within 10 years) and driving bans invariably follow even for those few offences where disqualification is discretionary.

Different penalties depending on where you live

Scotland has its own legal system, of course, and its Government is permitted to make some changes to the law under devolved powers. It is already the case that there are fundamental differences between Scotland and other parts of the UK in other areas e.g. free university tuition and NHS charges. Some may be bemused that one part of the UK can apply the law quite differently to the rest of it; if you are a UK citizen should you not be subject to the same road traffic law penalties, whether you live in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Dumfries? Is every UK citizen equal in the eyes of the law?

Where does this leave England and Wales?

The change does reflect a body of opinion very much in favour of a reduction to at least 50mg throughout the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland may also be on course to reduce the blood/alcohol limit to 50 mg from 80 mg/100 ml blood. This could happen in 2015, as part of a number of intended changes, including those for new drivers. Bearing in mind that another part of the UK will reduce or is likely to reduce the drink drive limit where does this leave England and Wales? After all, the existing UK limit of 80 mg is the highest in Europe. The majority of EU countries adopt the 50 mg limit, some with a lower limit for new drivers, or commercial drivers. Some countries have a simple 20 mg or ‘zero limit. Some have graduated penalties, determined by the degree of excess alcohol in the driver’s body.

It seems pretty likely that were there ever to be a reduction in England and Wales it would only be to 50 mg, consistent with most other EU countries but whether this is likely in the foreseeable future is debatable. The North review of drink and drug driving law (2010) considered in detail a drink-drive level reduction. Whilst some changes recommended will be or already have been implemented and whilst a new drug- driving law will soon be in force, HM Government resisted any suggestions to reduce the 80mg limit, to the dismay of many members of the public and road safety groups.

Would a 'zero limit' be workable?

Of course, many seek a 'zero” limit', either as an absolute and literal nil limit or with a minute tolerance. Whilst understandable, the question of how this would be policed, legislated for or dealt with by the courts is unclear. The unwitting consumption of, say, sherry in a trifle could lead to an offence and what are called ‘special reasons’ arguments where the court is asked not to apply the normal sanction where very extenuating circumstances exist! There may be perfectly legitimate physical and medical reasons for the presence of small amounts of alcohol in the body and it is questionable how there could be a fair and workable law. The prospect of a ‘zero’ limit, even with a very small tolerance appears pretty remote. The draft legislation for the new drug-driving offence has dealt with this problem in the context of drugs prohibited by the Misuse of Drugs Act by permitting small tolerances to take account of extenuating or mitigating circumstances such as passive smoking. However a zero limit for alcohol, whether absolute or with a small tolerance, appears a pretty unlikely prospect.

For more information

For further assistance and representation in relation to road traffic or road transport offences for both private and commercial drivers, please contact Tim Ridyard at Cambridge on 01223 411421 or Mike Hayward in Milton Keynes on 01908 202150.