Tightening drink-drive laws has saved lives, but there’s a limit to limits

The Scottish parliament has cut the legal limit for drinking and driving from the current UK level of 80mg per 100ml of blood to the European norm of 50mg, thus making it theoretically possible for a driver from England to be stopped and charged at Gretna Green after a mid-journey pint south of the border.

Scotland has a legacy of alcohol abuse as bad as the rest of us and we should all favour experiments between the three devolved regions and what yes voters in the Scottish referendum called rUK so that we can all learn from each other. After all, Holyrood pioneered the smoking ban in public places, which was much more easily accepted than critics feared.

But it’s also OK to challenge the thinking behind the move, not least because – always a danger sign in my experience – Holyrood MSPs voted unanimously for the move. It means they must all have parked their brains to embrace a well-meant gesture.

Hang on, I hear you cry, hasn’t the tightening of drink-drive laws since Barbara Castle first introduced the breathalyser in the 60s saved thousands of lives? It certainly has. Here’s some useful data from the BBC’s (pause for Tory boos!) news website: 230 drink-related motoring deaths in 2012 compared with 1,640 in 1979.

But, as with most good ideas there’s a limit to limits – something zealots often miss. There was a fascinating exchange on Radio 4’s Today programme (pause for more Tory boos) on Friday morning when Joanna Bailey, from the road safety campaign Brake, squared off against a pub trade rep, Kate Nicholls, with John Humphrys (whose knighthood George Osborne just cancelled) in the chair.

Bailey kept saying that “just one drink” impairs our capacity to drive as well as our capacity to realise this. Some people think that just one glass of wine with a meal is OK – it isn’t. There should be a “no tolerance culture”. She seemed to relish that prospect.

I know it’s well-meant and that driving accidents that kill or injure are likely to ruin some Christmases this year, as usual. It’s awful, but it’s part of the human condition and the freedom it gives us all: we take risks and bad consequences sometimes flow as well as good ones. It also happens that Britain has led a lot of reforms and slashed its road fatality and injury rate faster than many EU states – here’s one verdict, and here’s an EU text. Brake wants a 20mg limit, which is virtually a total ban.

But Nicholls made a subtler point which affects many issues of liberty v regulation in modern society. Most drink-related accidents now involve people well over the limit, she said, meaning that guidelines most people understand and accept – which they did not 50 years ago – are ignored by a selfish hardcore minority. Why make the police in Scotland or anywhere else harry the more-or-less law-abiding majority when they should be targeting the hardcore who may be driving without licence or insurance anyway?

It’s a good point and a real dilemma. The Child Support Agency, also created in a unanimous vote of the House of Commons, was notorious for chasing absent fathers who paid maintenance for their kids, but not enough. The real rogues were too hard to catch. Unfair or what? We call it “low-hanging fruit”, the same motive that encourages coppers to arrest motorists rather than drug dealers. It’s easy and helps boost conviction rates. But the majority suffer – and resent what the tabloids call “nannying”.

We all do it. Footballers’ affairs were easier for Fleet Street’s finest to catch than Jimmy Savile, who was in plain view but rich, famous and litigious. BBC HR managers were also in fear of the old monster. But sex, drink and drugs are always a target for the censorious who suspect other people may be having more fun than they’re entitled to (three laughs, two small white wines and one squeeze a week).

We have to watch that. Some crafty lawyers (got to watch them, too) have been trying to make drinking during pregnancy a crime, so that alcohol-damaged children can get “criminal injury compensation” from the state (ie us) for lives damaged by their mothers, but doing so without making the foolish mother a criminal, ie a crime with no perpetrator. The appeal court threw it out this week – well done. Anti-abortion campaigners were on the case.

Two personal observations. Having driven in many countries I have rarely seen police stopping motorists for routine breath tests – only once in France (they didn’t stop foreign cars ) where death rates have historically been higher and they are now trying to catch up. The exception was Melbourne in Australia where my wife, an excellent driver, was breath-tested twice on her five-mile drive home from dinner with a cousin to our hotel. Admittedly it was Christmas Eve, but the cousin – who might have failed – went the opposite way unimpeded.

And there’s the rub. My wife recently asked me to come and fetch her after leaving our car outside a cafe and having a glass and a half of wine with a girlfriend. No need in my opinion, she’s an ace driver. But I went. Had I been in the cafe too and had three glasses of wine to her one and a half, I would still have driven home. She’s the better driver, but I hold my booze better.

I’m not sure Brake’s zeal can encompass such fine tuning.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for The Guardian on Friday 5th December 2014 12.35 Europe/London

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