Drink drive risk as breath tests fall by 25%

8 December 2017: A new analysis of police data has revealed that both the number of officers on England’s roads and the number of breath tests they have conducted have fallen by a quarter in the last five years.

Published today by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, ‘Running on empty: Drink-driving law enforcement in England’ assesses nationally published breath test figures alongside Freedom of Information (FoI) responses from 35 police constabularies on the levels of resources and enforcement committed to dealing with drink-driving.

Reported figures show that anti-drink-driving enforcement activity has fallen over the last five years, as frontline officers have found themselves stretched, performing the duties of other services. The number of dedicated Roads Policing Officers reduced by 27% between 2011/12 and 2015/16, and that there were 25% fewer breath tests in 2015 than in 2011 – a drop of 149,677 breath tests. If breath testing had been maintained at 2011 levels, there would have been over a quarter of million (260,681) more breath tests performed during this period. The average roads policing budget for forces also steadily declined, by almost a million pounds per force.

These figures have emerged among a backdrop of no significant changes to drink drive deaths in the UK since 2010. England and Wales stand apart from all other nations in Europe – including Scotland and N. Ireland – in having a drink drive limit of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood; other nations’ limits are 50mg/100ml or lower. In addition to greater enforcement, research suggests that if England and Wales followed suit, lowering the limit would save at least 25 lives and prevent 95 serious casualties a year, and £800 million in costs.

Such a move is also supported by road safety charities, publicans, and the public – the latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed more than three-quarters (77%) of people are in favour of a lower limit.

Commenting on the findings, IAS Chief Executive Katherine Brown said:

‘This report highlights the damaging impact of police cuts on the ability of roads officers to do their job properly and enforce the law against drink-driving. Where enforcement levels are on the wane, more public campaigns would raise awareness about the dangers of drink-driving, and a lower drink drive limit would provide a cost-effective way of limiting the risk of people getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.

‘While budgets continue to be squeezed, approximately 200 lives are being lost on our roads to drink-drivers every year, and although the Department for Transport says that is “200 too many”, stripping police forces of the resources needed to tackle drink-driving may lead to worse outcomes in future.

‘The UK has made great progress on drink-driving in the last 50 years; now our drink drive strategy is in need of an update for the next 50.’

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), said:

‘We back the calls made today by the Institute of Alcohol Studies on government to do more to bring down deaths and injuries due to drink driving.

‘The government has previously said that the drink-drive limit does not need to be lowered and that the answer to tackling drink driving lies in police enforcement. The analysis presented in this report demonstrates that this is not a tenable position, with enforcement action down in recent years.

‘The police should now be given enhanced powers in relation to breath testing, and the case for a lower legal limit is now even stronger. England and Wales are the only countries in Europe (aside from Malta) to have a drink drive limit of 80mg/100ml, with every other country having a limit of 50mg or lower. With widespread support among the public, and road safety and accident prevention bodies for a lower limit, there is no reason for this life-saving measure to be delayed.’

The report’s policy recommendations for the UK Government are as follows:

  • Lower the drink drive limit to 50mg alcohol/100ml blood: England and Wales are an outlier in Europe (and indeed, much of the world). Evidence has demonstrated reducing the limit to 50mg/100ml would be a life-saving measure
  • Enhanced enforcement of drink-driving law: including enhanced powers for police to conduct random roadside breath-testing of drivers and the introduction of Mobile Evidential Breath Testing Equipment to avoid delays in testing samples once drivers are pulled over
  • Mass media public education campaigns to ensure understanding of the dangers and penalties of drink-driving: High profile mass media campaigns are needed to properly communicate drink-driving law, as well as the dangers of drink-driving. These campaigns should be government run, rather than industry partnerships