Monday, 14 July 2008

Drink-driving: how to send completely the wrong message

The government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has urged ministers to cut the drink-drive limit to zero - but only for young drivers. For anyone older than 20, the current limit of 80mg per 100ml of blood will still apply.

At first glance, it seems like a good idea. Fewer young people will drink and drive, and we'll all be much safer.

But there's a very serious flaw in the plan. Even with the current 80mg limit, it's impossible to judge how much you can safely drink and still get behind the wheel. Every single piece of official advice says the same thing. I quote this from the Department for Transport's own website: "... the only safe option is not to drink alcohol if you plan to drive ... You can't calculate your alcohol limit, so don't try."

Unfortunately, if you have two separate limits in force, what you're doing is sending the message that it's somehow possible to tell between them. So whilst the under-21s might start to avoid alcohol completely when driving, older drivers will get the impression that it's alright for them to drink a little bit, so long as they stay within an 80mg limit which they can't possibly judge with any accuracy. Sir Liam may have his heart in the right place, but his comments seriously undermine the government's own campaign against drink-driving.

Just imagine the slogan - "Think! Don't drink more than a pint (give or take, depending on your height, weight, sex, ethnicity and personal alcohol tolerance) and drive."

Surely the right strategy would be to set a nominal but very low limit, perhaps half of the current one? It would be impossible to have an alcoholic drink worthy of the name and still be allowed to drive, but it would also protect people from getting arrested for having a trace level in their blood from a drink they'd had hours before. You could then send out a strong and consistent message to drivers of all ages: don't get behind the wheel unless you're completely sober.

This sort of thing happened during the debate on the smoking ban, and we're seeing it again. Government medical advisers may well be good at explaining the science to ministers, but they're extremely bad at coming up with actual policy!


Martin said...

There are a few other reasons why it is bad policy, too.

The main one is that a limit of zero shall always be difficult, if not impossible to enforce, for the reason that if it is impossible to tell if you are at 80mg it is even more so to tell that you are at 0mg. Alcohol takes a little while to come out of your system, and whilst many have found that a good rule of thumb for being below 80mg the morning after is that if you have a hangover you should not drive, this is far from an accurate indicator, as hundreds of bleary-eyed morning commuters find out each year to their peril. So, whilst it is true that you will not be able to tell if you are above or below the limit when you drive home, you will also not be able to tell in the morning, or the next, or however long your body takes to remove your alcohol.

So why is the government doing something so silly? Why, for the headlines of course. Interestingly enough, the measure will hit the 17-20yr olds, who do not vote very much (and until the age of 18 cannot vote at all). At the same time, it will score well with anyone who uses the roads who is over twenty and has ever seen a scooped-up boy racer car.

Interestingly, this is the very reason that the government will not come out with a zero limit for over-twenties: it will not only be unpopular, but with its unpopularity will come editorials which explain the obvious reasons why it is a bad idea.

It is a flash-in-the-pan silly season story designed to grab a headline and nothing more. All the hallmarks are there- relatively unknown figure, top of an annual report which has very little in it of note or that is positive for the government, no response promising legislation. Wait for the story about possibly bringing in 'Sarah's Law', which I find usually comes out in the next few months each year.

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