Drink driving

sober2strapKey facts

  • In 2014, 240 people in Great Britain were killed in crashes where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit, largely unchanged since 2011;
  • Fatalities involving at least one driver over the alcohol limit accounted for 13% of road deaths in 2014;
  • Serious injuries where at least one driver was over the limit dropped by 3% cent between 2013 and 2014, the third consecutive annual decrease;
  • 70% of drink-drive fatalities in 2014 were men, showing a worrying trend developing;
  • A quarter of all drink-drive deaths in 2014 resulted from crashes where the driver over the limit was 25-39;[1]
  • Between 2010 and 2013 for every four deaths in collisions involving a drink-drive offence, one more death happened in a collision at a lower blood alcohol level;
  • It is estimated that lowering the drink-drive limit in 2010 could have saved 25 lives and prevented 95 serious injuries between 2010 and 2013.[2]

Introduction

Drink driving is still one of the biggest killers on our roads. In 2014, it is estimated that 13% of all road deaths in Great Britain resulted from crashes where the at least one driver was over the alcohol limit [3]. A further estimated 25 road deaths per year are caused by drivers who are under the drink-drive limit, but who have significant amounts of alcohol in their blood [4].

The number of deaths involving a driver under the influence of alcohol was 240 in 2014. That figure has been consistently been reported since 2010 and this trend looks set to continue if the provisional estimate for the 2015 figures proves to be accurate (200-290 killed).[5]

These deaths, and the many more serious injuries, can be stopped if all drivers pledge to not drink any alcohol – not a drop – before driving. They can also be stopped by improving government policies. Evidence from around the world shows that taking steps such as lowering drink drive limits and stepping up police enforcement checks are highly effective in cutting drink-drive casualties.

Learn more: Use Brake's interactive resource to bust the myths on drink driving.

Who drink-drives?

According to a survey of 1,000 drivers by Brake and Direct Line, one in three (32%) UK drivers admit to driving after drinking any amount of alcohol in the last year. Almost one in five (19%) admit driving the morning after having a lot to drink, when they are likely to still be over the limit [6].

Certain types of driver are more likely to be in drink-drive crashes:

  • In 2014 70% of drink-drive fatalities in 2014 were men, showing a worrying trend developing; [7]
  • Three-quarters (73%) of drivers who fail breath tests following crashes are men [8], and more than twice as many men as women admit to drink-driving [9]
  • Young drivers aged 17-24 have the highest level of drink-drive crashes per distance travelled [10]
  • However, a quarter (25%) of all drink-drive deaths in 2014 resulted from crashes where the driver over the limit was aged 25-39. [11]

How much is too much?

The legal blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving in England and Wales is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (80mg/100ml).

In many countries, the BAC limit is much lower. In most of Europe, including Scotland, it is 50mg/100ml. The Road Traffic (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 legislates for the drink-drive limit in Northern Ireland to be reduced to 50mg/100ml (20mg/100ml for learners, newly qualified drivers and professional drivers) in 2016.

In some countries, such as Sweden, the legal limit is 20mg/100ml for all drivers [12] – effectively zero tolerance.

There is no failsafe way to tell how much alcohol will put you over the limit, or to convert the BAC limit into how many units you can have: the concentration of alcohol in blood depends on various factors.

What is clear is that even very small amounts of alcohol affect your driving. Drivers with even 20-50mg alcohol per 100ml of blood are at least three times more likely to die in a crash than those with no alcohol in their blood [13]. Drivers with BAC of 10mg/100ml, far below the UK or European drink drive limits, are 46% more likely to be at fault in collisions than sober drivers [14], and when they crash, do more damage than sober drivers [15]. That’s why the only safe amount to drink if you’re driving is nothing at all – not a drop.

Take action: Support Brake’s Driving for Zero campaign for zero tolerance on drink driving.

What are the penalties for drink driving?

In the UK if a driver is found to be over the drink-drive limit, and/or driving while impaired by alcohol, they can receive a maximum penalty of six months in prison, an unlimited fine and an automatic driving ban of at least one year. If a driver kills someone while under the influence of alcohol, they can be charged with causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs (Section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, section 3)), which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine.

How do the police catch drink drivers?

In the UK, police can stop and breathalyse you if they have reason to suspect you have been drinking – for example, if you are driving erratically. They can also breathalyse you if you have committed another traffic offence (such as speeding or driving without a seat belt) or if you are involved in a crash [16].

In many countries police have the power to stop and breathalyse drivers at random, with no need to suspect the driver is under the influence. For example, police may randomly test drivers near pubs and clubs late at night. Random testing is allowed in most EU countries [17]. Random breath-testing has been found to be highly effective in reducing drink-drive casualties without over-burdening the police and criminal justice system [18].

In some countries, including more than half of EU member states, police can also set up sobriety checkpoints. Police will test either a random selection, or all drivers passing the checkpoint [19].

What does alcohol do to the body?

Alcohol is a depressant and even small amounts (such as half a pint of lager) affect your reaction times, judgement and co-ordination. It also makes you drowsy and affects your vision and how you judge speed and distance [20].

Alcohol also makes it impossible for drivers to assess their own impairment because it creates a false sense of confidence and means drivers are more inclined to take risks and believe they are in control when they are not. For these reasons, the only way for drivers to be safe is to not drink anything at all before driving: feeling sober is not a reliable indication that you are safe to drive.

Learn more: Read our advice for drivers on staying sober and safe.

How much alcohol is in your drink?

The alcohol content of drinks is measured in units. A UK unit is eight grams (or 10 millilitres) of pure alcohol [21]. Below is a list of some popular drinks and how many units they contain: 

  • A single shot (25ml measure) of 40% spirit (e.g. gin, whisky or vodka): one unit
  • A pint of 4.5% beer: 2.3 units
  • A large (250ml) glass of 13% wine: 3.2 units
  • A pint of 6% cider: 3.4 units 

DrinkAware has a unit calculator that you can use to track exactly how much alcohol you have drunk. Apps such as MyDrinkAware can help you keep track of how much you've drunk when out and about.

Resource: Download our 'Sober Up' factsheet on the risks of drink driving, or order a free leaflet.

How long does it take to sober up?

To be safe, drivers should ensure they are completely sober before driving – including the following day.

There’s no way of knowing exactly how long it takes to sober up completely after drinking, but it’s longer than many people think. As a rough guide drivers should allow at least one hour to absorb alcohol, plus at least one hour for each unit consumed [22] – but it can take longer, so it’s wise to leave extra time to be safe. Our morning-after calculator, at the bottom of this page, shows how long it can take to be alcohol-free after a few drinks.

For example, if you finish drinking three pints of strong lager or one bottle of 12% ABV wine (both nine units) at midnight, you will not be rid of alcohol until at least 9am. If you have a heavy and/or late night drinking you could be impaired all of the next day. Drinking coffee, eating, sleeping and showering don’t make you sober up any faster. It just takes time.

How long it takes for alcohol to leave your system varies depending on lots of factors, including: 

  • Gender – men tend to process alcohol faster than women;
  • Dehydration – if you haven’t drunk enough fluids, alcohol will stay in your system for longer;
  • Mixers – mixing drinks with water and juice means you absorb alcohol slower, fizzy mixers mean you absorb alcohol faster than with no mixers;
  • Tiredness – when you’re tired your liver becomes less efficient, processing alcohol more slowly so it stays in your system for longer. [23] 

Brake advises people who need to drive the next day to limit themselves to one or two drinks.

                                               Morning-after calculator

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End notes

[1] DfT,Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels: 2014 (final) and 2015 (provisional), 2016

[2] Prof. R. Allsop, Saving lives by lowering the drink-drive limit, 2015

[3] DfT,Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels: 2014 (final) and 2015 (provisional), 2016

[4] Prof. R. Allsop, Saving lives by lowering the drink-drive limit, 2015

[5] DfT, Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels: 2014 (final) and 2015 (provisional), 2016

[6] Brake, Direct Line and Brake Survey report 2012-14: Fit to Drive, 2014

[7] DfT, Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels: 2014 (final) and 2015 (provisional), 2016

[8] DfT, Reported road casualties Great Britain: 2014, 2015, table RAS51018

[9] DfT, Self-reported drink and drug driving: Finding from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, 2015, table RAS51102 

[10] DfT, Reported road casualties Great Britain: 2014, 2015, table RAS51010

[11] DfT, Reported road casualties in Great Britain: Estimates for accidents involving illegal alcohol levels: 2014 (final) and 2015 (provisional), 2016

[12] World Health Organisation, Global status report on road safety, 2013

[13] Global status report on road safety, World Health Organisation, 2015

[14] Official blame for drivers with very low blood alcohol content, British Medical Journal, 2014

[15] The relationship between serious injury and blood alcohol concentration, University of California San Diego, 2011

[16] Gov.uk, Being stopped by the police while driving: breath tests, 2014

[17] Random breath testing: data by country, World Health Organisation, 2012

[18] The impact of implementing random breath testing on criminal justice system resources, MADD, 2012

[19] Sobriety checkpoints: data by country, World Health Organisation, 2012

[20] How much alcohol can I drink before driving?NHS Choices, 2013

[21] What is an alcohol unit?DrinkAware, 2014

[22] How long does alcohol stay in your blood?NHS Choices, 2013

[23] Calculating your BAC, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2012


 Page last updated: March 2016

The number of deaths involving a driver under the influence of alcohol was 240 in 2014. That figure has been consistently been reported since 2010 and this trend looks set to continue if theprovisional estimate for the 2015 figures proves to be accurate (200-290 killed).