Brake responds to Northern Ireland drink driving consultation

Regulations to introduce measures to tackle drink driving in Northern Ireland - Response from Brake, the road safety charity, May 2015.

Brake is a road safety charity working with communities and organisations across the UK to stop the tragedy of road deaths and injuries, make streets and communities safer for everyone, and support people bereaved and seriously injured on roads.

Question 1 - Do you have any comments on the Department’s approach to introducing fixed penalties for lower level drink driving offences?

To keep our roads as safe as possible, action must always be taken when someone is caught drink-driving to act as both a deterrent and a punishment. Brake welcomes the concept of fixed penalty notices but is disappointed there is no automatic disqualification for every level of the offence. Drink-driving at any level is dangerous and life-threatening, and we must use all available powers to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Brake is concerned that if drivers know they MAY NOT lose their licence after a first offence, this could increase risk taking. If drivers only face a fine, penalty points and a training course after a first “lower level” offence, they may risk drink-driving a first time, making our roads more dangerous than they should be and putting lives at risk.

We believe the possibility of this dangerous behaviour happening in the first place would be reduced if drivers knew they would also lose their licence after a first offence. Research shows that the fear of losing your driving licence has a powerful impact on driving behaviour. [1] There is also evidence of the effectiveness of a one-strike-and-you-are-out policy from Ontario, Canada. They have immediate roadside suspension for drivers with 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood or above, and this is associated with a 17% decrease in the number of people injured or killed in drink-drive crashes in the region. [2]

The objective of a training course that will enable a driver to develop non offending behaviour is welcome and we are pleased this will run alongside and not replace the points and fine. Education and enforcement must go hand in hand [3] and a course should never replace other penalties and punishments.

Research by the Transport Research Lab on the effectiveness of these types of courses shows they do work, but have different effects on different types of drivers. [4] They are most successful for drivers in their 30s, but the evidence shows 17.8% of young men in the lowest social group of course attenders had reoffended after 72 months. To effectively target younger drivers we need a more comprehensive deterrent and punishment. We believe including an immediate driving ban would be more effective. We need to send a strong, clear message that drink-driving is never acceptable at any level, to keep all road users safe, and to stop dangerous and risky behaviour before it starts.   

Likewise if the zero-tolerance alcohol limit that will be in place for new and professional drivers was in place for all drivers, it would be a much clearer and more effective deterrent. 

In Sweden the decision to lower the drink-drive limit to an effective zero tolerance of 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood was accompanied by an automatic licence loss at 30mg. Since making the decision to match the reduction in the drink-drive limit with clear a deterrent, Sweden has seen  a 7% reduction in crashes overall and a 10% reduction in fatal crashes [5]. 

By offering lower-level drink-drivers a reduced level of punishment, it could be perceived that lower-level drink-driving is less of an offence. Research shows any amount of alcohol makes you more likely to crash. [6] Even very small amounts of alcohol affect your driving. Drivers with even 10mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood are 46% more likely to be at fault in collisions than sober drivers [7], and when they crash, do more damage than sober drivers [8]. That’s why the only safe amount to drink if you’re driving is nothing at all – not a drop.

Question 2 - Do you have any comments on the Department’s approach to the restriction of the requirement to re-sit the driving test to those disqualified for 12 months or more for offences involving higher levels of alcohol?

Previous legislation saw anyone convicted of drink-driving lose their licence, and it’s not acceptable that people breaking drink-drive laws escape bans because of a change in legislation. We believe every drink-drive offence is serious and deserves a ban, as evidenced in our response to Q 1. Every ban should therefore entail a re-test. Driving is a privilege, not a right. If that privilege is not exercised responsibly, it must be revocable. The change in drink-drive laws is being brought in to reflect evidence that even small amounts of alcohol can have a dangerous impact on driving and this must be echoed by the punishment, if it is to be an effective deterrent. Laws need to be strong, clear and consistent. 

Brake believes there should be a mandatory driving ban for all drink-drive offenders even when the lower limit is imposed, and that this should be of at least one year for all offenders. This reflects the level of danger posed by those who drive after drinking even a small amount of alcohol (again as evidenced in the Q1 response) and sends a clear message to drivers that no level of drink-driving will be tolerated.

Question 3 - Do you agree with the Department’s approach to reducing the threshold for High Risk Offenders to 125mg/100mls?

YES - All drink driving is high risk and extremely dangerous but we do appreciate the legal need to have some categorisation for legal purposes. We welcome this proportionate reduction that means “High Risk” will still be 2.5 times the limit. It should certainly not be any higher.

Question 4 - Do you have any comments to make on the consultation process?    

We are extremely grateful to be asked to use our 20 years of experience in road safety and supporting bereaved families affected by road deaths to contribute to this consultation. The process has been smooth and clear, with comprehensive explanatory notes.

Overall Brake welcomes the planned reductions to the drink-drive limit that will undoubtedly make roads safer and save lives. This is a great step in the right direction by the Northern Ireland Assembly who must be praised for taking it. It’s a useful step forward towards a zero-tolerance drink-drive limit being called for by Brake across the UK. 

We recognise it is beyond the scope of this consultation, but our roads and all road users will not be as safe as they can be until we have zero tolerance across the whole of the UK. The UK as a whole still has the highest drink-drive limits in Europe (along with Malta), and the position is becoming more and more bizarre as different nations adopt different rules and regulation. We need a strong clear zero-tolerance approach across the whole of the UK to let all drivers know drink-driving is not acceptable at any level anywhere in the UK.  

1) Does the Threat of Disqualification Deter Drivers from Speeding?, Department for Transport, 2008.

2) Evaluation of the general deterrence capacity of recently implemented (2009–2010) low and Zero BAC requirements for drivers in Ontario, Road User Safety Division, Ministry of Transportation, 2015.

3) World report on road traffic injury prevention, World Health Organisation, 2004.

4) Reconvictions of Drink/Drive Course Attenders: A Six Year Follow Up, Transport Research Laboratory, TRL574, 2003 

5) Drugs, Driving and Traffic Safety, J.C Verster, S.R. Pandi-Perumal, J. G Ramaekers and J.J de Gier 2009.

6) Drivers Over .08 BAC Pose a Serious Traffic Safety Problem, Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, 2009.

7) Official blame for drivers with very low blood alcohol content, British Medical Journal, 2014

8) The relationship between serious injury and blood alcohol concentration, University of California San Diego, 2011