Second Reading

Part of Road Traffic Act 1988 (Alcohol Limits) (Amendment) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 11:36 am on 29th January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 11:36 am, 29th January 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for bringing this Bill forward because I believe it is certainly time we looked again at the alcohol limits for driving.

One of the great social changes of our lifetime is being discussed here today. It is undoubtedly no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive. However, it was once so. I am a keen reader. If you read a book written earlier than, say, the 1960s, but within the 20th century and the driving era, you will see that this subject was talked about publicly and flippantly. That has changed. I well remember the controversy and public discussion when this limit was introduced.

There have been other similar social changes in our lifetime regarding smoking, attitudes to women and equal marriage. They have all been a journey, backed up, or led by, legislation. However, on drinking and driving we seem to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. There has been no legislative journey on this to any great extent. The world has changed since this limit was introduced in legislation. Drinking habits and patterns have changed and we undoubtedly drink more on average. Some people drink a great deal on a regular basis. Back in the 1980s, I was part of an interesting demonstration involving the breathalyser and the 80 milligram limit. I was a trainee magistrate taking part in a residential training course. Over dinner in the evening we were given a plentiful amount of wine, after which the police breathalysed us. Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that none of us was going anywhere other than to bed. However, what struck me was that some of the people who were breathalysed had drunk a disturbingly large amount but were still not over that limit. That is very worrying indeed.

Testing systems have become more precise, as have scientific and technical knowledge. They have all moved on since this limit was introduced, and social attitudes have changed. To accommodate the legislation, we now have the phenomenon of the designated driver. In my experience, the younger generation has, on the whole, an exemplary attitude to drinking and driving, and a group of young people normally has a designated driver.

As noble Lords have said, the alcohol limit in England and Wales is now one of the highest in the world. That is pretty risky, given that this is a crowded island with severe traffic congestion. Most other European countries have lower limits. As we have already heard, Scotland and Australia have recorded far fewer fatal accidents since the introduction of lower limits. My noble friend Lord Beith, who was in his place earlier in this debate, said to me that, in his part of the world, it was important to remember which side of the border with Scotland you were on if you were going to have a drink and drive. My noble friend does not drink. Simplicity is important for drivers and the public; confusion should not be allowed.

I welcome the Bill. I do not know if 50 is the right limit, but it is undoubtedly time to look again at this issue. I hope the Government will take the opportunity to announce an independent review, led by experts. We need this for public confidence, because 50 is, to a certain extent, a number plucked out of a range. It is a moderate number but many people would say it should be lower, or zero. We need a thorough look at this, so I urge the Minister that the Government should set aside pressure from the drinks industry and ensure that the issue is investigated fully.