50 years on, and drink-drive casualties rise

  • UK data show current test no guide
  • 60 000 UK drivers failed or refused breath test
  • Easy to be over your body’s driving limit
BREATH-TESTER Image: Newspress
BREATH-TESTER Image: Newspress

LONDON, England – It’s 50 years ago (10 May 1967) that a blood alcohol limit for drivers was introduced in the UK yet UK government figures suggest drink-drive casualties are on the rise.

Provisional statistics for 2015 (most recent data) from the Department for Transport indicate that 1380 people were killed or seriously injured in crashes where at least one driver was over the limit – five percent more than in 2014. year.

There has also been a rise in general drink-drive offence  – the estimate for 2015 is 8480, three percent more than the previous year.


Police carried out 520 219 roadside breath tests in 2015 and of those more than 60 000 drivers (one in eight tested) failed or refused to take the test**

The Road Safety Act of 1967 set the maximum limit at 80mg of alcohol/100ml of blood (0.35mg of alcohol/litre of breath). It became an offence for the first time to drive, attempt to drive, or be in charge of a motor vehicle with a blood or breath alcohol concentration exceeding that limit.

The 80mg/100ml limit was based on evidence that a road accident is more likely to happen at or above this level but more recent evidence shows drivers can be impaired below this limit.

At only 10mg/100ml (one-eighth the current English limit) a driver is 37% more likely to be involved in a fatal road accident than when sober. At the lower Scottish limit of 50mg/100ml the likelihood is five times as great and at the current English limit 13 times more likely to be in a fatal crash.


Hunter Abbott, an advisor to the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety and MD of self-test breathalyser firm AlcoSense Laboratories told The Corner in a media release: “It’s now socially unacceptable in most circles to drive while intoxicated.

“Most people now know that if they go out drinking they leave their car at home but there’s a wide misunderstanding about how long alcohol can stay in the body. Sleeping doesn’t hit a ‘reset’ button – the human body processes alcohol at the same rate awake or asleep.”

The speed at which alcohol is eliminated varies considerably, influenced by body size, health, metabolism and how much food is in the stomach.

Abbot added: “It’s easier than you think to drive unaware that there is still enough alcohol in your system to dramatically increase your chances of being in a fatal road accident.

“The only way to know you’re clear is either to abstain from alcohol completely or to use an accurate personal breathalyser (such as the one his company makes).”


Richard Allsop, a professor of transport studies at University College London, did the statistical analysis that advised then national transport minister Barbara Castle to determine the 80mg/100ml limit, since adopted by many countries, including South Africa.

Allsop said: “We should not forget those killed by drink-driving at levels below (what is now indicated) the outdated limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of 80mg/100ml.”

The 1967 introduction of the breath test in 1967 is believed to be a factor in the percentage of road traffic accidents involving alcohol to have dropped from 25% to 15% in the first year.

Way back in 1872 it had become an offence to be drunk in charge of cattle, steam engines or carriages – the penalty being a fine up to 40 shillings (£2, or about R4 at the time) or imprisonment with or without hard labour.


Ninety years later the Road Traffic Act of 1962 made it an offence to drive if your “ability to drive properly was for the time being impaired” – but no legal drink drive limit was set until 1967.

Prior to that, drink driving prosecutions had relied on subjective tests such as whether you could walk down a white line without wobbling or touch your nose with your eyes shut, along with other observations made by police surgeons and witness statements.

Abbot added: “There is no doubt that decades of state-funded education and enforcement saved thousands of lives but we still have the highest drink-drive limit in the developed world. Lowering that limit based on newer research could save many more lives.”

A sobering thought, indeed.


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