If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 15 March 2010

Jailed for a shandy

According to reports, the Government is now considering bringing the blood-alcohol limit for drivers down from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood.

Well, if it saves just one life ...

It's utterly pointless. And it will bring the current law (which, incidentally, I approve of wholeheartedly) into disrepute. Tim Worstall takes it apart quite effectively here. I won't repeat what he says, except to reiterate that Britain has the highest blood-alcohol limit in Europe, and the lowest number of accidents per mile travelled, so we must be doing something right.

But the proposal gains a gold star for Completely Missing The Point.

There was a case recently (sorry, lost the link) where a fatal accident occurred on a road with a 60mph limit, where the car involved was said to be travelling at about 80mph. There was the predictable outcry and the call for "something to be done", and one of the recommendations was to reduce the speed limit of the road from 60mph to 30mph.

Does anyone seriously think that the driver would obey a lower limit if he was clearly willing to ignore a higher one? Did he say to himself, "I think I will keep to about 20 mph over the posted limit, and whoops! this is now a 30 area so I will slow down to 50"? Of course not. Speed limits only work if people obey them; if people don't obey them, the actual limit is irrelevant.

And so it is with the drink-drive laws. Ever notice how many people are caught at two and three times over the limit? Far more than would be expected from a normal distribution of blood-alcohol levels in the driving population. When people go over, they tend to go way over. It seems to me that the 80mg limit (which allows for a drink or perhaps two) is very good at keeping the majority of the driving population down to a reasonable level. For those who do drink and drive to excess, it doesn't matter whether the limit is 80, or 50, or zero - they are going to drink and drive no matter what. All that reducing the limit from 80mg to 50mg will do is to penalise responsible drivers. These drivers may well modify their behaviour to stay within the lower limit, but these weren't the people causing the problem in the first place. The change would make no difference to the accident rate, but would make criminals out of ordinary folk, and lead to further erosion of the idea that laws are obeyed by consent, not authoritarian compulsion.

Criminalising ordinary people, while leaving the real criminals unaffected and making no difference to the crime rate? Now where have I heard that before?

There is a good argument to be made that a realistic limit like 80mg is far more effective in reducing the number of accidents (which is surely the aim) than a more stringent lower limit. If people are going to drink and drive anyway (and they will - our whole society is structured around it, especially out of the towns and cities), then better a higher limit that people will respect and comply with, than a lower limit that everyone will ignore. Only if your purpose is to catch people and punish them, rather than reduce accidents, does the 50mg limit make sense.


  1. Interesting, but I have no idea what the answer is. All I know is that some countries, like Finland have zero or little tolerance of alcohol. Indeed, if you are caught serving alcohol to someone you believe is a driver, in Norway, for example, you can go to jail. As far as I can ascertain, these tougher laws have had no effect on behaviour or conviction rates.

  2. There are some very stringent rules, for example for pilots, which, I believe is zero alcohol for 24hrs before flying. That, however, is a special situation involving a professional body of people who are easily regulated. The difficulty comes with the general population, where going out for a drink is part of the social fabric, and zero-tolerance measures would be largely ignored. People would still have a drink, but the focus would be not on keeping 'under the limit', but 'how to get home without being caught'. I know which sounds the safer option tio me. My view is that the best measures are what work best, and from the stats it would seem the 80mg is a good compromise, which keeps the majority under a sensible limit.

    Finland's accident stats, for all their zero tolerance, are worse than the UK's. And of course their suicide rate is far higher too.


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