Just In Time For Christmas: Scotland Leads The Way On Drink-Driving Limits:

“Water is the only drink for a wise man”. This was the view once expressed by the 19th Century American philosopher and poet, Henry David Thoreau. Although the manufacturers of brands such as Volvic, Perrier and Evian are likely to concur with this opinion, if strictly followed it would in effect rule out the consumption of not only all types of alcohol but also (among others), tea, coffee, Coca Cola and Red Bull.

The Ohio-born humourist and political commentator, P.J. O’Rourke, however, clearly disagrees profoundly with his compatriot: “The proper behaviour all through the holiday season (he has declared) is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year’s Eve, when you get so drunk that you kiss the person you’re married to”.

What O’Rourke didn’t mention was whether he would approve of someone driving when in this recommended state of inebriation. The Scottish Government evidently doesn’t – which is why, as from 5th December, it reduced the alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland from 80mg in every 100ml of blood to 50mg. Due to its devolved powers, it didn’t need the permission of the politicians in Westminster to introduce this law – which means (as BBC News Scotland has pointed out) that under the new regulation “the average man intending to drive will be restricted to imbibing just under a pint of beer or a large glass of wine and women to half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine”.

The BBC also warned that, as (according to the UK Road Safety Minister, Robert Goodwill), there are currently no plans to change England’s 80mg limit, anyone celebrating in (for example) the Gretna Chase Hotel just south of the border between the two countries would have to be very careful if they then drove north. They could (as the Daily Mail journalist, Ian Garland, has noted) find themselves inadvertently breaking Scottish law, liable to a maximum sentence of six months in prison, a fine of up to £5,000 and a 12-month ban.

The BBC News Scotland columnist, Alicia Queiro, has queried the whole point of having a limit at all. Why not, she has asked, just introduce a “zero-tolerance policy”. The response of the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to this has been that there are various reasons why individuals may have alcohol in their system: “Generally, alcohol is removed from the blood at the rate of about one unit per hour, but weight, gender and age can all play a part. So can the amount of food or water consumed, type of alcohol, metabolism and even stress levels”.

An added complicating factor is that, because “some foods, mouthwash and medication contain alcohol”, people can increase their levels without realizing they are doing so. The road safety campaign group “Brake” (quoted by Queiro) has asserted that “20mg is as close as you can get without accidentally penalising those with a trace of alcohol in their bloodstream”. Their deputy chief executive, Julia Townsend, believes that the 80mg limit in the rest of the UK – “the highest in Europe” – sends out completely the wrong message that “a drink or two before driving is acceptable”.

An analysis by the “Independent” correspondent Lizzie Dearden on 5th December has revealed that “most European countries strictly enforce a 50mg limit , which is cut to 20mg or 30mg for drivers holding licences for under two years or those carrying people on public or commercial transport”. Some countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary “ban alcohol completely for motorists”, and in Germany “anyone caught drink-driving within a decade of a previous offence has to pay a minimum fine of 1,000 euros and may be forced to undertake compulsory psychological assessments”. In the USA “the nationwide limit is 80mg but (as with Croatia) there is zero tolerance towards motorists aged under 21”.

Dearden’s survey indicates that Colombia has the toughest penalties in South America: Drivers found with 20mg of blood alcohol have their licences suspended for a year or revoked for a decade or even for life, must carry out community service and pay a fine. Malawi, Ethiopia and Pakistan apparently impose no legal limits, whereas India “ imprisons first-time offenders for up to six months”. Australia operates a ”zero-tolerance policy for inexperienced drivers in most states and a nationwide limit of 50mg for older drivers”. In Kuwait and Iran, alcohol consumption is prohibited for everyone, irrespective of whether or not they are driving.

An assessment of European “alcohol control policies”(ACPs) by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has produced somewhat different results. It took into consideration factors such as the “physical availability of alcohol, the drinking context, alcohol prices, alcohol advertising and the condition and type of motor vehicles. It concluded that ACPs are “the strictest in Norway, Sweden and Finland and the least strict in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany. Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

On 9th December, the “Metro” newspaper reported that “One in five motorists has driven the morning after a night of heavy drinking – even when they thought they were over the limit”. The “Road Safety UK” website emphasizes that “it can take up to twelve hours to be safe to drive after drinking one bottle of wine, or four pints of continental lager or ale”. In a survey of 1,688 drivers conducted by the car insurers LV and published on BBC News UK,”37% said driving the following morning was ‘unavoidable’, 26% that they were only going a short distance, 7% thought it was acceptable to drive if they were not on a motorway and 13% considered that, as they were only slightly over the limit, it didn’t really matter”. The position of “morning-after.org.uk” on this issue is unequivocal: “If you’ve had a big night out and there’s the slightest chance you could still be over the limit, forget driving the following morning”.


Filed under: Healthcare, Society, Travel | Posted on December 14th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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