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What is the drink-drive limit? UK laws explained

England, Wales and Scotland have separate drink-drive limits, here we explain them all

Over the past three or four decades, the Government has created a culture that frowns upon drink-driving, although there are still those drivers who think they're above the law and flout the rules. But what are the drink-drive limits? Well, it varies depending on where you live in the United Kingdom.

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If you're in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, it's 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, but in Scotland, it's lower, at 50mg per 100ml. This is in line with the rest of the European Union, and Police Scotland's latest Road Casualties 2015 report revealed that it has contributed to a continuing downward trend for fatalities and injuries on Scotland's roads.

Increase in drink-drive deaths in 2016 revealed

The number of Scottish drink-drive offences dropped 7.6 per cent across 2015 as a whole, although the number of offences over the festive period in December 2015 actually went up. Almost all the lawbreakers during the festive period were comfortably over the old, higher drink drive limit, too.

When the casualty figures are published, they should allow objective analysis of whether the law changes in Scotland have had the desired effect. UK ministers, and the lobby groups who pressure them, will be reading the results closely. Meanwhile, the argument still rages amongst interested parties as to whether lower drink-drive limits are a good thing, or whether they demonise otherwise law-abiding citizens, damage the pub and restaurant industry, and ignore the hardened offenders who are the real problem.

The new, tougher laws in Scotland mean that just one drink can push drivers over the legal limit, but whereas other countries with lower limits often have a sliding scale of penalties for less serious offences, Scottish drink-drivers face an automatic ban just like those in England and Wales – notwithstanding their lower legal limit.

Are lower drink-driving limits working?

We wanted to find out what the effect had been. Was the new limit working? And could England and Wales learn a lesson from Scotland’s experience? Auto Express went to Stirling to speak to Police Scotland’s Head of Roads Policing, Chief Superintendent Iain Murray, to find out.

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Drink-drive limit: understanding the risks

He was unequivocal in his interpretation of how people reacted. “We have seen real behavioural change,” he said. And the numbers backed this up. Prior to the limit change, Police Scotland were catching an average of 106 drink-drivers a week, with an extra third of people recorded in an “amber zone” – just under the old limit (but over the new one). 

That extra third would have taken the figure to 141. Chief Supt. Murray explained: “We were able to go public with the message that if nobody changed their behaviour, with the new limit we would catch at least an extra 35 people a week.

 “What we are down to now is 80 a week [N.B. Those figures related to an average between December 2014 and February 2015]. You can look at that as a near 25 per cent reduction on the 106, or a near 50 per cent reduction on the 140. Put simply, had people not changed, we’d be catching more.”

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Hereford branded worst UK city for drink and drug driving

Of course, this would be less impressive if fewer breath tests were being carried out in the first place, but according to Chief Supt. Murray, this wasn’t the case. “We are stopping more cars – more than we ever have,” he said. “Police stop more than 20,000 Scottish drivers a month. That’s one vehicle every two minutes. If you have committed an offence, or if we have reasonable cause to suspect that you have been drinking, you may be subjected to a breath test.”

Enforcing the lower drink-drive limits

To get a taste of how rigorously the roads are being policed, we went on patrol with Inspector Andy Thomson and PC Allan Duff early on a Monday morning on the roads in and around Stirling. The officers were on the lookout for anyone committing road traffic offences, and have the authority to breath test anyone they stop. 

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“Morning-after offences are quite common,” explains Insp. Thomson. In a period of around 45 minutes, we stop three drivers. William Harper, of nearby Fintry, is driving a Ford Transit and it quickly becomes clear to PC Duff that his brake lights aren’t working. 

The officers tail him, then stop him and explain the nature of the offence. There’s no argument from the driver, who is then told he will be required to undergo a breath test.

A quick blow into the tube confirms the reading is zero, and William is extremely relaxed about the experience. “There’s no problem,” he tells us. “I think the limit is a good thing. I wouldn’t even consider half a pint before driving.”

You can read what other drivers in Stirling think of the new limit further down this page, but it’s no exaggeration to say that public acceptance has been a driving force behind its introduction and implementation. “As soon as the [Scottish] Government was granted the power to do so, it [the idea of a lower limit] went out to public consultation in 2012,” Chief Supt. Murray told us. “The 74 per cent return rate was seen as a green light to go on and work towards putting it in place.”

And the need for something to be done is obvious. A total of 200 people died on Scotland’s roads in 2014 – which coincidentally was the four-year rolling average as well. “If you said 200 people were being murdered a year, people would be up in arms,” reasoned Chief Supt. Murray. “But if people die on the roads, it’s just considered a ‘tragic accident’. But of course it isn’t. These things are avoidable.” 

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Between one in eight and one in 10 of these deaths were attributed to alcohol – a figure Murray is determined to lower. In addition, an average of 130 people a year are injured on account of alcohol-related road accidents, too. 

Lower drink-drive limits: how much can I drink?

Of course, one of the big debates regarding the new limit is just how much is safe to consume before driving. Police Scotland’s official line is, as Chief Supt. Murray told us: “Any alcohol leads to impairment. So it’s best not to do it at all.” 

Many people have taken that on board, especially in light of effective public messaging which says that, depending on who is consuming the alcohol and how they’re doing it, one pint or a large glass of wine could be enough to exceed the limit. This change in drinking habits has had benefits elsewhere, too. 

Has the lower drink-driving limit in Scotland been a success?

Explained Chief Supt. Murray: “At Christmas we saw a reduction in domestic violence, which is one of the most heartening things out of this. The only thing that has changed in Scotland in the past year is the limit. If people are drinking less and making more positive decisions about aspects of their life, then how it affects them and how they behave elsewhere must be improved.” 

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Even at this early stage, then, it seems with public backing and fewer positive tests, the reduction in the limit has been a success. Surely, then, there is a need for the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s example? “I think England and Wales’ position now is worthy of strong question,” said Chief Supt. Murray. “Countries in Europe with more challenging issues around road safety are going to reap better rewards than we’ll see south of the border as they have moved quicker.

“The UK should be at the forefront of this, because we have plateaued when you look at road death stats. There have actually been rises in overall KSI (Killed or Seriously Injured) figures in certain parts of the UK. If you look at any European country that lowered the limit before us, and what is happening in Scotland, the research shows it takes away the dubiety. People get the message. Put simply, we need to see something new.” 

What do Scotland’s drivers think? 

We asked motorists in and around Stirling what they made of the lower limit – and whether it had changed their outlook...

SHAUN LEMMON

“I completely accept the new limit. It’s a maturity thing – you know you shouldn’t drink-drive and that’s it. I’d never have done it anyway, and I’m even less likely to now.”

JUNE WATT

“The conscientious are now even more aware, but I don’t think it stops hardened drink-drivers, so I have mixed feelings. It spoils your enjoyment of a glass of wine with a meal. Now I don’t have a thing.”

THERESA McLEAN

“The general consensus is that it has made people more responsible. Previously I might have had a couple of glasses of wine in the evening and driven the next day. Now you really think about what you’re drinking.”

WENDY MACKIE

Drink-driving feature - Wendy Mackie

“I knew the limit had been lowered, but wasn’t aware it was lower here than in England. Yet it doesn’t bother me. I’d never do it. It’s just something you wouldn’t consider doing.”

CHRISTINE CAMPBELL

Drink-driving feature - Christine Campbell

“There was loads of advertising about the new limit so you couldn’t miss it. People are definitely more aware now about the dangers of drink-driving. I get my husband to pick me up if I’m out.”

SUZANNE BEATON

Drink-driving feature - Suzanne Beaton

“Of course it’s a good idea. It should actually be zero, instead of just being lowered. Why take the risk? There’s no need to have a drink if you are driving. I certainly wouldn’t have one. There’s absolutely no excuse.”

Will the rest of the UK follow suit? 

So will the rest of the country follow Scotland’s lead and reduce the drink-driving limit?

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There’s certainly a strong desire for new legislation from some quarters, with the Police Federation in particular adamant that action needs to be taken. At its conference in May 2015, Victoria Martin, of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “We would like to see a lower drink- drive limit like most other European countries have, as well as Scotland which saw a marked reduction in failed breathalyser tests as soon as the law was changed last year. We would also like to see road safety back on the national and local agenda.”

Drink drive alcohol interlocks get first UK trial

However, the feeling at the Department for Transport seems to be that it’s too early to draw conclusions from Scotland’s experience. It would not comment on the drop in positive tests, but a spokesman did say: “Tackling drink-driving is a priority. Measures in the 2015 De-Regulation Act strengthened enforcement by removing the right for drivers who fail a test to demand a blood or urine test. This has denied people the chance to sober up while waiting for the test to be taken.

“High-risk offenders are now also required to prove they are no longer alcohol-dependent before being allowed to drive.”

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, could be set to go even further. Its limit is currently 80mg per 100ml, but there are proposals that could see a phased introduction later this year of a general 50mg limit and 20mg for professional and novice drivers, which is a de facto zero limit.

What do you think the UK drink-drive limit should be set at? Let us know in the comments section below...

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