Road Traffic (Blood Alcohol Concentration Limit)

– in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 16th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington 4:02 pm, 16th March 1988

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1972 to lower the prescribed blood alcohol concentration limit from 80 milligrammes of alcohol to 100 millilitres of blood, to 50 milligrammes of alcohol to 100 millilitres of blood: This is the second time that I have had the opportunity to introduce a ten-minute Bill drawing the attention of the House to the scourge of drinking and driving. It is an appalling social evil that must be combated with urgent and dramatic solutions. There is a desperate need for counter-measures to make people think very carefully both about the possibility of being caught and about the serious consequences of driving after drinking.

The Bill is concerned with lowering the legal limit of blood alcohol concentration. In November last year, I obtained the support of the House to bring in a Bill to introduce random breath tests. That is still the top priority —the most important initiative needed to stop drinking and driving. However, there is clearly a need to change the legal limit of blood alcohol concentration levels, and that is the issue with which I am dealing today.

The Bill calls for a reduction in the blood alcohol level from the current 80 mg to 50 mg. I shall present my reasons for supporting a level of 50 mg and detail some of the considerable amount of scientific research that justifies it.

In 1967, the current level of 80 mg was set because that was thought to be the point at which excess accident risk occurred. However, 20 years later there is widespread agreement among experts, in both the United Kingdom and abroad, that the point at which excess risk is reached is much lower — at about 60 mg and, for young and experienced drivers, even lower. During the past 10 years, hundreds of experiments under laboratory conditions have studied the relationship between driving impairment and alcohol intake levels. They support the view that there are different degrees of impairment for a number of driving-related variables—for example, reaction time, tracking skills, vigilance and perception—at well below the 80 mg level.

Another accepted method of determining the effect of alcohol risk is to study real accidents, and those studies also recognise that impairment can occur at or even below the 50 mg level. In studies where the driver was subjected to a series of complicated tests, there appeared to be no blood alcohol concentration level below which impairment could not be said to exist. That means that even a tiny amount of alcohol can affect a driver's judgment.

Photo of Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark , Birmingham, Selly Oak

The hon. Gentleman is a kind man, but he is talking exaggerated nonsense.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

The hon. Gentleman might regret that remark one of these days.

The 50 mg level is used in New South Wales, Australia, and in a 1985 review its traffic authorities concluded that any relaxation in the 50 mg limit could only lead to an increase in traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. Further evidence for changing the legal limit is shown in the Grand Rapids study conducted in Michigan in the 1960s, which included 6,000 accident-involved drivers. Analysis of that data was used to set the current British legal limit.

The data have since been reanalysed, and they suggest that, in fact, the risk of causing an accident or death is significantly greater for the majority of people at the 60 mg level, not at 80 mg.

There is no doubt that if accidents are to be avoided, drivers must be persuaded that only a small amount of alcohol can impair their judgment. I am convinced by the weight of available scientific evidence that at 60 mg the accident risk is too high and that at 50 mg judgment is badly impaired. Clearly, the best advice is that people should not drink and drive. If they feel it necessary to have a drink, they should realise that after a very small amount of alcohol they would not drive with the same proficiency as they would without any alcohol in their blood, even when driving on a full stomach or after drinking coffee. Such drivers are a menace to themselves, to other road users and to pedestrians.

As part of the process of discouraging drinking arid driving, it would be useful if the Minister would amend his leaflet "Key facts about drinking and driving", which he recently distributed to all of us. He is clearly mistaken in defending the present legal limit. My case for a 50 mg level is supported by the fact that I can name at least 11 countries, including Australia, Japan and some of the American states, that have set their legal limit at 50 mg.

Perhaps the Minister is concerned that a lowering of the limit would be unpopular. I can allay his fears by telling him that public opinion is in favour of a change in the law. A survey last autumn by the Guild of Experienced Motorists, carried out on a representative sample of its membership, found that 71 per cent. of respondents were in favour of a reduction in the legal limit to 50 mg.

In a statement two weeks ago, the Church joined the growing body of support for a reduced limit and for random breath testing. A survey by Gallup in 1987 revealed that drinking and driving was perceived by the public to be by far the greatest single killer compared with other social concerns such as drug-taking, AIDS and murder. Almost one in 10 motorists claimed to have lost a friend in a drink-driving accident, while one in 20 had lost an immediate relative.

Following my previous ten-minute Bill I received many heart-rending letters from those who had suffered such a loss, describing their thoughts and emotions. One woman, whose 21-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver, wrote: Every day is a nightmare knowing my son is dead. People don't understand the pain and misery we are going through … and say, 'Try to rebuild your lives'. But how can we when part of us has gone? I am equally saddened by those who have written to inform me that they can drive equally well, if not better, after drinking. One recent letter said: The legal limit, about 2 pints of draught bitter, is ridiculously low for a seasoned drinker who can hold his drink, although it would be ample for the young yob. Such contemptible attitudes demonstrate that there is clearly a need for urgent Government action.

The carnage must stop. It is tragic enough to lose a friend or relative through natural causes but to lose a loved one because some ignorant, arrogant, anti-social fools and cranks believe that they can drink and drive is appallingly wrong. Three people are killed on our roads every clay as a consequence of drinking and driving. More than 1,000 lives a year are destroyed—equivalent to a King's Cross disaster every 10 days—yet drink-driving deaths are so accepted by many that they get no dramatic headlines. Drink-driving costs 30 lives every 10 days, and it must stop.

I hope that I have demonstrated to the satisfaction of hon. Members that urgent action is needed to stop this needless slaughter on our roads. I hope also that the weight of scientific evidence available, which confirms that the present level of 80 mg is far too high, will be taken seriously into account by the Minister. In view of the widespread support from the vast majority of people for changes in the law on drinking and driving, I ask for the support of the House of Commons for my Bill, which is backed by hon. Members from all political parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roland Boyes, Mr. Don Dixon, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr Ray Powell, Dr. Lewis Moonie, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Sir Bernard Braine and Mr. A. J. Beith.