Public demand government action as England and Wales risk falling behind in fight against drink driving

Friday 19 December 2014

Brake, the road safety charity 

Three quarters (74%) of UK drivers want a lower drink drive limit, according to a survey published today by road safety charity Brake and Direct Line.

In the wake of Scotland lowering its drink drive limit earlier this month, the appetite clearly exists for the rest of the UK to follow suit, and ideally go further by introducing a zero-tolerance limit.

In the UK-wide survey of 1,000 drivers:

  • three in ten (31%) said the UK should get in line with Scotland and most of the EU by lowering the limit to 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (50mg/100ml) – a limit also set to come into force in Northern Ireland next year;
  • more than two in five (43%) said the UK should go further by introducing a limit of 20mg/100ml – effectively zero-tolerance – as in a number of EU countries, including road safety leaders Sweden;
  • only a quarter (26%) said the limit should remain at the current level of 80mg/100ml – a limit shared only by Malta in the EU.

Brake is calling on Westminster politicians of all parties to make a zero-tolerance 20mg/100ml drink drive limit a key manifesto commitment for next year’s general election, in line with the evidence that even 20-50mg/100ml alcohol in your blood makes you at least three times more likely to be killed in a crash [1]. This could help stop the estimated 65 deaths a year caused by drivers who drink but are under the legal limit [2].

Brake is also renewing calls in the run-up to Christmas for the public to show zero tolerance on drink driving, pledge to never drive on any amount of alcohol – not a drop – and plan ahead to make sure they and loved ones can get home safely from festivities. See below for more advice.

Brake and Direct Line’s survey also found almost unanimous support for tougher measures to tackle repeat drink drive offenders, who currently face the same penalty no matter how many times they are caught:

  • almost all (95%) drivers agreed repeat offenders should face higher penalties;
  • nine in ten (89%) said repeat offenders should have ‘alcohol interlocks’ fitted to their vehicles to stop them starting the engine without passing a breath test.

Brake is calling for longer sentences – up to two years – and alcohol interlocks combined with rehabilitation for repeat offenders to help cut reoffending. Currently, one in eight drink drivers and three in 10 'high risk offenders' do it again [3].

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, said: “It is often said that the UK has some of the safest roads in the world, but there is no room for complacency, not least on drink driving, which remains one of the biggest killers. The UK has now slipped off the top of the European road safety rankings, and without critical progress, including the introduction of a zero-tolerance drink drive limit, we will be left further behind.

“The current drink drive limit in England and Wales sends a confusing message and asks drivers to do the impossible – guess when they are under the limit, and guess when they are safe to drive. In reality, even very small amounts of alcohol impair driving, so the only safe choice is not to drink at all before driving. The law needs to make that crystal clear. We’re also appealing to the public in in the run up to Christmas to show zero tolerance on drink driving, and pledge to never get behind the wheel after any amount of alcohol.”

Rob Miles, director of motor at Direct Line,commented: “Many people don't really know what the legal limit actually means in terms of how much you can drink. Our advice is not even to take the risk - if you're driving, it's not that great a hardship just to stick to soft drinks for the evening. If you've had a large glass of wine and are wondering if you're over the limit, you're better off not driving at all.”

Read about Brake’s not a drop, not a drag campaign. Tweet us: @Brakecharity, hashtag #NotADrop. Read the survey report.

Case study

Christmas 2010 was memorable for all the wrong reasons for Daniel Glynn, 22, from Kent. He spent Christmas Day in hospital, undergoing emergency surgery for injuries he suffered because he had caught a lift home from a party on Christmas Eve with a friend who'd been drinking.

They'd been out celebrating, and Daniel knew his friend had had a drink but didn't realise how much and accepted a lift anyway. Travelling back, Daniel's friend lost control and the vehicle span across the road and hit a tree at full force. Police reported the car was unrecognisable and the engine was found five metres away.

Daniel was taken to hospital, and was told he had broken all the ribs on his left side, his knee cap was badly damaged and his bowel had been ruptured. Daniel had to return to hospital a number of times for further treatment and repeat a year at college because of time out due to his injuries.

Daniel said: “I was naive. I thought it wouldn't happen to me, but I now know drink driving, or getting a lift with a drink driver, is never worth the risk. My life was turned upside down, and I went through months of terrible agony that could have easily been avoided. But I was one of the lucky ones: it could easily have ended both our lives. Now I'd never catch a lift with a driver who's been drinking, not even one drink, and I'd urge everyone to make the same commitment. Speaking up about drink driving isn't always easy, but it could save a life or prevent a horrific injury, so please speak out to friends and family, and if you're a driver, commit to never, ever, drinking alcohol before getting behind the wheel.”


Drink driving is still one of the biggest killers on our roads. One in eight UK road deaths result from crashes where the driver was over the drink-drive limit [4]. A further estimated 65 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 [5].

The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (80mg/100ml). In many countries it’s much lower: it’s 50mg/100ml in most of Europe, including Scotland as of 5 December, and in some countries, such as Sweden, it is 20mg/100ml [6] – effectively zero tolerance. Northern Ireland plans to lower its limit to 50mg.

If you are found to be over the drink-drive limit, and/or driving while impaired by alcohol, you can receive a maximum penalty of six months in prison and an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted also receives an automatic one-year driving ban. If you kill someone while under the influence of alcohol, you can be charged with death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

The penalties for drink driving are currently the same no matter how many times a driver re-offends. However, some drivers are also placed on a 'high risk offender' scheme if they are repeat drink drivers or had a high level of alcohol in their blood. Under this scheme drivers have to undergo tests to show they are not alcohol dependent before getting their licence back.

Brake’s advice

Don’t try to guess how much alcohol will put you over the limit – there is no failsafe way to tell. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit cannot be converted directly into how many units you can have: the concentration of alcohol in your blood depends on various factors. That’s why the only way to be sure you’re under the limit is not to drink at all before you drive.

Being under the current legal limit does not mean you are safe to drive. Even very small amounts of alcohol affect 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 [7].

To be safe, drivers should ensure they are completely alcohol-free before driving – including the following day. There’s no way of knowing exactly how long it takes to sober up completely after drinking, as it depends on various factors, including gender, hydration and tiredness. As a rough guide drivers should allow at least one hour to absorb alcohol, plus at least one hour for each unit consumed [8] – but it can take longer, so it’s wise to leave extra time to be safe. If you have a lot to drink you could be impaired all of the next day. Brake advises people who need to drive the next day to limit themselves to one or two drinks.

About the report

These survey results come from Section 7 of Report 2: Fit to Drive, part of the Direct Line and Brake report on safe driving, 2012-14, released today (Friday 19 December 2014). The survey consisted of 1,000 drivers and was conducted by Surveygoo. Read the report.

Full results

Q1. What should the drink drive limit be? (The current UK limit is 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood, but Scotland and Northern Ireland have proposed to reduce their limits to 50mg. Almost all other EU countries have limits of 50mg or 20mg. 20mg is the lowest practical level: effectively zero tolerance.)

  • 43% said it should be 20mg
  • 31% said it should be 50mg
  • 26% said it should remain at 80mg

Q2. Currently penalties for drink driving do not take into account whether the driver has been caught drink driving before. Do you think penalties should be higher for repeat drink drivers?

  • 95% said yes
  • 5% said no

Q3. In some countries, drivers who have been caught drink driving twice or more have a device fitted to their vehicle so they can only start the engine if they can show they are sober by blowing into a tube (these can be fitted with anti-tampering and recognition devices so it only works for the driver who owns the car). Should we be using these for repeat drink drivers in the UK?

  • 89% said yes
  • 11% said no


Brake is a national road safety charity that exists to stop the needless deaths and serious injuries that happen on roads every day, make streets and communities safer for everyone, and care for families bereaved and injured in road crashes. Brake promotes road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use, and effective road safety policies. We do this through national campaignscommunity education, services for road safety professionals and employers, and by coordinating the UK's flagship road safety event every November, Road Safety Week. Brake is a national, government-funded provider of support to families and individuals devastated by road death and serious injury, including through a helpline and support packs.

Brake was founded in the UK in 1995, and now has domestic operations in the UK and New Zealand, and works globally to promote action on road safety.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

Direct Line

Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides motor, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by UK Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England No 1179980. UK Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc. Customers can find out more about Direct Line products or get a quote by calling 0845 246 3761 or visiting

End notes

[1] Review of effectiveness of laws limiting blood alcohol concentration levels to reduce alcohol-related road injuries and deaths, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 2010
[2] Reducing the BAC limit to 50mg - what can we expect to gain?, Professor Richard E Allsop, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London (PACTS, 2005)
[3] Drink driving (repeat offenders) bill, Rehman Chishti MP, 2013
[4] Final estimate for 2012, from Reported road casualties in Great Britain, final estimates involving illegal alcohol levels: 2012, Department for Transport, 2014
[5] Reducing the BAC limit to 50mg - what can we expect to gain?, Professor Richard E Allsop, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London (PACTS, 2005)
[6] Global status report on road safety, World Health Organisation, 2013
[7] Review of effectiveness of laws limiting blood alcohol concentration levels to reduce alcohol-related road injuries and deaths, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 2010
[8] How long does alcohol stay in your blood? NHS Choices, 2013

Tags: Drink-Drive research scotland alcohol