Breathalyser Technology

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:13 pm on 14th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle]

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant 10:14 pm, 14th March 1988

I am much obliged for the chance to raise the subject of the new breathalyser technology, which I believe to be of widespread interest. My reason for so doing is that technology, with the advent of the microprocessor, has come to the aid of policy in a way in which Government in general, and chief constables in particular, seem unwilling to recognise.

This has always been a difficult area of policy in which legislation, and its administration, has attempted to reconcile several major objectives. The first, and most important, is the reduction of the serious and costly hazard on the road attributable directly or indirectly to the inescapable fact that millions of people, regrettably, drink and drive every day and will continue to do so, despite everything that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport or the whole Government can throw at them in the way of exhortation or even severe penalty.

The second objective is that the law should, wherever possible, educate people in their responsibilities as drivers, especially where alcohol is involved. The third is that the attempt to modify social behaviour should never be so draconian that it brings the law or its administration into contempt. The fourth is that the enforcement of this law impinges directly and more continuously than almost any other on the critically important relationship between the police and the public—a relationship that should never be unnecessarily or uncritically damaged, because so much else depends on it.

Until now, no entirely satisfactory reconciliation of all these objectives has been achieved in any state or by any Government. The Government have found themselves in a position of conspicuous inconsistency, in that the law permits drinking and driving within a stated limit, while Ministers and others adopt the absolutist position that, whatever the law says, the policy is that no one should drive with any alcohol in the system. The situation is highly unsatisfactory for a number of reasons.

It is always undesirable for statutory law and public policy to diverge. It opens the way for zealots to go further than the laws passed by Parliament permit or require. It ignores a number of fundamental realities which are inescapable. The zero alcohol level position, for example, is unlikely to be achieved this side of the millennium. Even in Sweden it has not really been achieved, although its citizens have gone much further down this road than we have.

It is impractical for a purely technical reason. The elimination of alcohol from the human system is linear, exactly proportional to time. Anyone, therefore, who has drunk in excess of the legal limit of 80 mg will require seven hours for his or her system to be totally clear. So anyone who has had several drinks the previous night and has been taken home by taxi or by his wife will still be technically drinking and driving when the next morning, after a night's sleep and strong coffee, he drives to the office. I am sure that most people do not realise that. Twice the limit requires 14 hours, and a binge will still affect that individual, technically, on the way home from work the following evening. Anyone who has a damaged liver will take two or three days to eliminate alcohol from his system.

That is probably the main reason why the zero position is absolutely impractical and unenforceable without draconian alteration of the nation's entire lifestyle.

What does that lifestyle imply? We need no special surveys to reveal the hard, inescapable facts, however much we dislike them. First, the nation which in social surveys prefers to describe itself as a nation of moderate drinkers spends some £16 billion every year on alcohol—7 per cent. of its total expenditure. If, from our total population of 56 million, we subtract the under-15s and the over-75s, that leaves 40 million people, giving us the staggering figure of £410 per head, or £802 per household, per annum. If we assume that half this alcohol is consumed at home—and that is a very broad assumption which I cannot prove—we end up with £205 per head or £410 per household per annum consumed in public.

Where is that alcohol consumed? In 1985, there were 86,000 points of public consumption, consisting of hotels, restaurants, public houses and clubs. How did the public get there? A recent survey of drink-driving offenders shows that 88 per cent. of them went to pubs. Half of those concerned drove there — 58 per cent. in their own vehicles—and three quarters of those who went to pubs drank more than five units—beyond the limit.

In 1987, there were 300,000 tests in Britain and 100,000 convictions. If it were possible to enforce the existing law—and I believe that it is not possible—there be about 500,000 convictions every day. If the absolutist or zero rule were enforced, that figure would almost certainly be higher. If we were to succeed, we would, as it were, enforce a de facto prohibitionist state, with all that that implies. In that context, what is the technology and where and how should it be applied?

The technology is that of the fuel cell which is controlled by a microprocessor, a device which did not exist five to 10 years ago. It can give an extremely accurate breath-alcohol count. It was developed by a Dr. Breakspeare at Cambridge university. Unfortunately, it was not taken up in the United Kingdom, but it was taken up in Australia and applied there on a substantial scale. Two devices are being manufactured and exported worldwide.

The first is a wall-mounted breath test analyser designed for pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels. The second is a mobile device which is attached to the ignition lock of a motor car. I have it here in the House. Any hon. Member who is interested can see that the entire unit is contained in a small package. In that unit lies the future of all our breath test problems.

In 1986, a total of 707 of the wall-mounted units were in use, including 400 in Australia, 145 in the United States, and 52 in West Germany. That is just the beginning. The production rate is 1,000 per annum. They have been accepted in Australia where at first the police were understandably sceptical, as are our police, because the devices that the two units replaced were certainly unreliable. It would be undesirable that people should be given the wrong idea about where they stand.

Those two devices have been now recommended in Australia by the Niewenhuysen committee that was set up specifically in New South Wales to consider the application of breath test laws in that state. The committee did not consider whether the key devices should be allowed or encouraged but whether they should he made mandatory at all on-licences and whether the fee for the installation should be subtracted from the licence itself.

There have also been highly successful tests by three Royal Australian Navy establishments where, as a result of the application of wall-mounted units, the incidence of drink-driving has been drastically reduced and a considerable number of convictions have been avoided. So far, these devices have been used to carry out 9 million tests and the record is based on that. Indeed, 20,000 tests per day are now being conducted worldwide.

In one club alone in Australia which has had such a device for four years, 160,000 tests have been conducted with a considerable degree of satisfaction.

As I have said, application has now been extended to the breathalyser ignition lock, a device of great ingenuity and sophistication which is accurate to within 0·005 per cent. The standard device used by the police in Australia is of the same quality as the device used by the police in the United Kingdom.

If a person gets into a car with such a device he cannot turn on the ignition and the engine will not and cannot start until the driver has breathalysed himself. There are three possible outcomes. If the alcohol in the driver's breath is zero, he can start the engine immediately without any further problems. If the alcohol in his breath is up to a certain moderate limit he may not start until he has rebreathalysed himself eight minutes later. That accounts for what was generally regarded as a weakness of the old device as it did not allow for the fact that, under certain conditions, alcohol in the body will continue to rise. This device would solve that problem. However, if the driver is over the limit, he may not start the engine, the device reads red, and he is told to go away and think again.

That seems to me to be a device of great significance and I believe that its application should be widely considered. In California, for example, it is now applied by the state courts to those who have committed a drink-driving offence. They do not lose their cars or their licences for a year, but they must have the device, plus a meter installed in their cars and they are obliged to use it, or they cannot use their cars under any circumstances. Therefore they cannot drink and drive, but they do not lose the right to continue their occupation.

It seems that this device facilitates accurate self-testing. The wall-mounted one can be used voluntarily in hotels, clubs and pubs, and it eliminates the remotest possibility of drinking and driving. Its widespread adoption is of the first importance. It would reduce drink-driving drastically and educate the public in the effects of alcohol. If any sane, sensible and realistic policy is to succeed, it must, in view of the figure of £16,000 million I gave earlier, educate the public in the use of alcohol.

The device would eliminate, virtually completely in time, the need for any breath tests, especially for the drivers of vehicles so fitted. If it was compulsory for all vehicles, as it could easily become, the problem would be eliminated altogether.

We have about 20 million vehicles in the United Kingdom and the cost of the device in mass production would be a total investment of £200 million to £300 million. As the cost of accidents caused by drink driving are already running at £100 million per annum, such an investment would pay for itself in three years. That is a consideration which the Government should bear in mind. They should also consider that we take action without eliminating or severely circumscribing the consumption of alcohol, which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly it is not necessarily a good thing because it is associated with this problem.

What is the alternative? It is a degree of absolutism which would require the closure of virtually all pubs or hotel bars, a virtual prohibition outside private homes of the consumption of alcohol, and large-scale random breath testing, which, for reasons I have already given, is offensive to many people and damaging to the police-public interface. All those measures will not be necessary.

If our limit of 80 mg is too high, and there are views that it is, we should lower it. In half of Australia the limit is 80 mg and in the other half it is 50 mg. However, the lower the limit, the more necessary it becomes to encourage and facilitate a driver's access to knowledge of his breath-alcohol concentration. The analogy of the speedometer is simple, but effective. We are not told to get in our cars and drive without knowing the speed at which we travel because only the police must know that. If we break the speed limit, we rightly suffer the penalty. We have a speed limit and clearly we must keep within the law. I am suggesting a breath-alcohol limit, and any sane man or woman is entitled to know whether he or she will be within the law.

Will the Government encourage the use of these devices and advise the police to do likewise? I am under the impression that the police discourage the installation of these devices wherever they come across them. They are not entitled to do that. There is nothing in our laws to permit the police to discourage them. If they go into a hotel, pub or club and say, "I should take that off the wall if I were you," the chances are that the publican will do so. I want a clear statement from the Government that the police are not entitled to do that and that the Government will reverse the policy.

Secondly, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider the consequential legislation, which is small but rather important? At present an individual walking to his car with the keys in his pocket who has consumed alcohol over the limit can be tested before he reaches the car and prosecuted on a drink-driving charge. If he has this device in his car, it would be absolutely ludicrous for him to be prosecuted when he cannot drive the car if he is over the limit. That is the only change in the law which is required and which I ask my hon. Friend to provide.

Will my hon. Friend please consult the Australian authorities which are now accumulating immense and valuable experience which we cannot afford to ignore? Will he make it clear that moral absolutism will play no part in our policy now that technology has come to our aid and made it unnecessary? Will he advise the courts to consider compulsory breathalyser ignition locks for convicted breath test offenders? That is an area in which we can make substantial progress to everyone's advantage.

Finally, will my hon. Friend assure me and the House that the authorities in his Department and the Home Office will not insist on this device being preceded by a red flag while other countries give it the green light? We did that many years ago in another context; I hope we shall not do it in this.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:30 pm, 14th March 1988

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) on raising this subject. He has, with his customary clarity, combined his continuing and distinguished service to the cause of science and technology with the issue of road casualty reduction, in which drinking and driving was a major contributory factor to the 5,382 deaths on our roads last year.

Anyone who recalls the television scenes of, or who was present at, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert hall will know that every one of the seats there could be filled each year by people who die, mostly unnecessarily, on our roads. Anyone who watches a football match at Wembley should know that each of the places there could be filled three times over with people who have been injured on our roads.

Of the deaths that I have mentioned, 1,000 are the victims of accidents in which the driver or rider is above the legal blood alcohol limit. About another 400 are victims when the driver or rider may not be above the legal limit but has noticeable amounts of alcohol in the blood. On top of that, 500 drunken pedestrians die. So about 1,800 people are involved—one third of the dead on our roads.

Imagine what it is like to be a young police officer in the early months of duty having to knock on a stranger's door to say, "I am sorry. Your son—or daughter, or husband, or wife, or parent—won't be coming home again alive." My hon. Friend raised the issue of using breath alcohol devices in traffic—and, he could have gone on to say, in industrial—safety. Professor Brakespeare, dean of the faculty of physical sciences at the New South Wales Institute of Technology, has put forward a case, part of which my hon. Friend outlined to the House. Professor Brakespeare has argued that the way to deal with alcoholic drivers—not only people who are drunk, but those who drive with noticeable quantities of alcohol in their blood—even on the scale that obtains in the United Kingdom, which is lower than in Australia, is to lower the limit from 80 to 50 mg and to bring in random breath testing.

My hon. Friend, with his scientific background, would not expect me to be able, by myself, to disentangle the effect of the use of the breath alcohol machine in cars, or the machines on the walls in drinking establishments, from the 3 million random breath tests given last year in New South Wales. He and I would agree that it is not necessarily a good use of police resources to switch police tests from those who are likely to have been drinking to those who are not.

There is much argument about random breath tests. I stand four-square behind the police in this country, who prefer to go on with targeted testing. Even in one of the police areas that has had some publicity recently, a small proportion of the motorists who were required to stop by the police were tested for alcohol.

The police can require me to give a breath test in one of three circumstances: if I have committed a moving traffic offence; if I have been involved in an accident; and if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that I have alcohol in me. If I am stopped, as the police have the power to do, and the officer asks me whether I have been drinking and I reply that I have, there are grounds for testing me. If I say that I have not, but the officer can smell alcohol, again there are grounds for testing me.

Of the approximately 350,000 tests that were required to be given by the police last year, 120,000 were positive. That is about 30 per cent.

Of every 100 tests, 30 are positive. To get one more positive test under random breath testing, we would need to have another 200 tests. To go from 30 to 31 positives we would need to go from 100 to 300 tests. To put it in simple terms, we would need to switch tests from those who were likely to have been drinking to those who were not. In the long term no one rules that out, but I do not think that it is a priority and it is certainly not a policy that I advocate within Government, if I may be allowed to give away trade secrets.

I should like to turn to my hon. Friend's suggestion of promoting or encouraging the use of breath alcohol devices. Even when one is just below the legal limit, one can be up to five times more likely to be involved in a crash. I normally put it more strongly and say that one is five times more likely to make a mistake because of the alcohol affecting one's judgment, behaviour and reactions or degree of false confidence.

Anyone who wants the facts of drinking and driving can ring Freephone 0800 234 888, and we will arrange to send him a straight, factual booklet with no exhortation showing the curves, as far as they are known, on the relationship between alcohol levels in the body and the likelihood of crashes. The booklet comes in a plain brown envelope which does not say, "This contains the facts on drinking and driving." The matter is dealt with rather more sensitively than that.

During my 26 months as a junior Minister in the Department of Transport, I have seldom put any emphasis on getting drivers to stay just below the legal limit. I think that the House will agree that the only sensible advice to give drivers is not to take alcohol before driving. They should be told that if they do propose to take alcohol, they should preplan the way that they will move and should not drive. To that we add the other sensible advice that one should not encourage or expect other drivers to take alcohol.

Most of us have had the experience, whether it is because we give alcohol up for Lent or because we do not want to drink and drive, of saying, when asked if we want a drink, that we want a soft drink or a low or non-alcoholic beer. Someone then says, "Are you sure?" We ought to consider whether it is more appropriate to say "Are you sure?" when someone whom we know will drive asks for alcohol. The extent to which we are our brother's or our own keeper is a matter for individual judgment. There is probably a spectrum of opinion about that.

The third bit of advice, after saying that one should not contribute to the problem and should not urge other people to contribute to the problem, is that one should not accept a lift from a drinking driver. Of the people who die —many of whom probably have children, parents or relations—60 per cent. are the drivers. If I give a party and have no regard for the way in which some of my guests drive home, it means that they have a 60 per cent. chance of being the victims if they are involved in a crash.

Of the people involved, 20 per cent. are car or pillion passengers, normally members of the driver's family o friends. Twenty per cent. are unknown to the drivers, perfect strangers, and it is a curious way to stay on the same side of the road—if I may turn the story of the Jericho road on its head—to wipe out someone's life rather than take part in the greatest day and night co-operative venture in Britain, the use of our roads.

There are 56 million of us and we are all potential victims. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there are probably about 2 million adult males, and for the ones who are at or above two and half times the legal limit, research evidence from Nottinghamshire shows that 90 per cent. were drinking beer. A very high proportion of them drank it in pubs and many of them were young. There are also significant numbers of women, more elderly males and so on.

One other shocking bit of information is that 10 per cent. of people who are above the legal limit and involved in crashes are disqualified, and 10 per cent. have not passed their full driving test. We must get the message across to young drivers that inexperience of drinking combined with inexperience of driving is the worst possible combination.

The General Accident Insurance Group commissioned Gallup to carry out a survey. It showed that, between 1986 and 1987, the proportion of adult males prepared to drink and drive, or at least prepared to admit to doing so, had dropped from two out of five to one out of five.

As more of us decide not to drink and drive and move through the five stages of saying, first, "There is a problem," secondly, "They should not do it," thirdly, "I should not do it," fourthly, "I intend not to do it," and fifthly, saying, truthfully, "I do not do it," we are left with two dominant groups. Those two groups have been called by a psychiatrist the yobs and the dumbos. The yobs are the young over-the-limit beer drinkers and the dumbos are the dangerous upper-middle-class business men who are over the limit.

We need to recognise that we are all at risk. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has said that if people know their alcohol level, they are less likely to drive. We are prepared to watch carefully, and with interest, overseas experience with the equipment that my hon. Friend brought into the Chamber and demonstrated tonight. We want to watch to see what happens. I will not ask my hon. Friend now, but perhaps in further discussion we may deal with what would happen if I asked a passenger or a passerby to blow into the tube. There are minor problems such as that.

I shall not encourage the police to put machines on the wall. If anyone needs to blow into a machine to see whether they have had a significant amount of alcohol, they should not be driving. Anyone who intends to go drinking and says, "I will test myself to see whether I should drive," is more concerned about losing their licence than about losing their own life or somebody else's. That is a point of veiew with which not everyone will necessarily agree, but the logic for it is good.

The key task is not simply to stop people committing a criminal act. Being over the limit is, of course, a criminal act and, because of different body metabolisms, it is difficult to say how much someone can drink and stay within the limit. It is worth remembering that two thirds of the injuries that occur on our roads are linked not to alcohol but to the other things we do wrong on the roads. The only way in which one can avoid contributing to the extra risk of injury and of making sure that one will never fail a breath test is not to take extra alcohol before driving.

I do not want to get involved now in the problem of what happens if someone drinks at night and then drives at midday the following day and there is still a residual trace of alcohol. However, for anyone who goes on a bender and does not drive that night but does drive the following morning, I should say that in Finland they catch most people, under their random breath testing, at 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning.

The units of alcohol do not go away much faster than one unit an hour. If someone drinks 15 units and drives after six or eight hours, they are likely to be above our legal limit, which some countries would argue is too high. However, the Government have no proposal to change that.

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant

I am following the speech of my hon. Friend with great interest. Would he not concede that it would be more desirable for the Finnish driver who leaves home the following morning to be in the position of being able to know his alcohol level? In that instance, a sensible and responsible driver would say, "Goodness me. I am over or near the limit set by my country and, therefore, I will not drive." My hon. Friend the Minister said that drivers are five times more dangerous just near the limit.

If, for any reason whatsoever, living in the real world, someone has had a drink, would it not be preferable for him to be able to find out whether he is near or over the limit and have the opportunity of saying, "I will not drive."?

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

That may be. I suspect that this discussion, which is informative to the House and useful to me and which, I hope, is a reasonable response to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, will continue in other ways on other days. In simple terms, 1,000 people a week are caught at more than twice the legal limit. The answer for them is a great deal of individual decision-making and social pressure, with or without machines, to cut out that drinking and driving.

Not everybody has to take the Minister's advice. Therefore, if a pub or club puts up a device for testing, I cannot do anything about it and neither can the police. If that happens, perhaps we could see whether there is less drinking and driving. However, it may require a survey, even in Sussex, to discover what the baseline for drinking and driving is and then to come back and survey again later.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.