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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 10:49 GMT
Does anything stop drink-driving?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

After decades of improvement, drink-driving figures may again be rising, despite shock campaigns and severe penalties. As pilot schemes of in-car breathalysers are approved, and the annual shocking TV campaign begins, does anything really make a difference?

They have been dubbed "alcolocks" - devices which prevent cars being started unless the driver has provided a negative breath test. And they're the latest measure in a decades-long war on drink-driving.

On the surface, the battle has been a big success, reducing the number of deaths in drink-driving-related crashes from 1,640 in 1979 to 560 in 2002.

But 2002's figures, the latest available, are the highest since 1996. The percentage of "roadside screening" breath tests failed has risen to 16%, the highest since 1992.

So has the UK done all it can to tackle drink-driving or are there more radical measures which could be used to cut deaths and injuries?

REDUCING THE LIMIT

The legal limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

But different levels of drinking take different people over the limit. More importantly, some people under the legal limit may still be severely impaired.

Woman crashes into pub table in scene from Think campaign
Campaigners believe shocking adverts can still have an effect
The UK is one of only four of the "old" EU countries to have an 80mg limit. The lower 50mg limit has been in force in 10 other countries, and Sweden is perhaps the most radical thinker on the issue with a 20mg limit.

For the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), the case is simple - it says 50 lives a year would be saved and 250 serious injuries prevented.

The government ruled out reducing the limit in 2002, saying it preferred to concentrate on education and enforcement of the current 80mg limit.

For safety campaigners, an 80mg limit which can theoretically allow people to drink and stay within the limit, means the drink-driving message is ambiguous.

ALCOLOCKS

With a limited trial already underway in Bristol and Birmingham, plans for "alcohol interlocks" to be part of a larger pilot scheme and then rolled out nationally are in the Road Safety Bill.

In Sweden, though, it is proposed that all new cars will have to have an alcolock on board by 2012. Saab has already announced it could include an "alcokey" with its cars where drivers must blow into the key before starting the car. Lorries and buses will have the alcolocks before 2012.

They enjoy support from both safety campaigners and motoring organisations in the UK.

Driver about to blow into alcolock breathalyser
In Sweden, all new cars will eventually have alcolocks
Roger Vincent of Rospa says: "Theses devices will prove useful. The evidence from overseas does suggest they are effective in reducing the likelihood of a drink driver reoffending."

The RAC Foundation's Kevin Delaney says alcolocks could play a major part in bringing the treatment of drink-drivers into the 21st Century.

"The penalties for motoring offences are still firmly rooted in the 1930s - fine, disqualification and for the worst of all offences imprisonment. It is all about sticks and not about carrots."

Mr Delaney said he could see no reason, in principle, why alcolocks should not be included in all new cars.

"I don't buy the civil liberties line. It could be a substantial saving for drivers who don't want to break the law."

SHOCK TACTICS

We are now used every Christmas to seeing a variety of shocking and sometimes gruesome adverts warning about the dangers of drink-driving.

This year's campaign features two men sitting in a pub drinking and contemplating driving, when a woman's body smashes into their table, as if into a car.

Drink drive campaign image
One of the shocking images from past campaigns in the UK
Safety campaigners believe, if better targeted, that the government's Think! campaign could continue to have an effect.

Aimee Bowen, of road safety group Brake, says: "Until the very early 1990s we were winning the war, it was becoming socially unacceptable. Now the numbers are creeping up.

"We don't want everybody living in fear, but a certain amount of fear would make you stop your friends drinking and driving. Shock tactics do work, but they need to be targeted."

Various approaches have been taken on the campaigns. One example from Australia adopted the tone of peer pressure, using the slogan "If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot".

Research into a Victoria campaign suggested that advertising would only be effective if it was combined with strict enforcement, such as secret roadside cameras.

MORE BREATH TESTS

At the moment, the number of breathalyser tests carried out every year is falling - from 815,000 in 1998 to 624,000 in 2001 - for roadside screening tests.

The number of tests administered after accidents where people were injured has fallen from 215,000 in 1999 to 196,000 in 2002.

Drink drive campaign
This year's anti-drink-driving campaign begins at the weekend
Ms Bowen says she believes traffic police are being diverted away from drink-driving enforcement, with resources being switched to other areas of crime.

She is also calling for random breath testing, which is not allowed in the UK without a suspicion of drink-driving, to be introduced.

A Home Office spokeswoman denied that the government was not committed to road policing.

She added: "The number of the traffic officers in any given police force area is a matter for chief constables."

GENTLY DOES IT

An alternative approach is to make it easier for people not to drink, rather than warning them what might happen if they do.

At least one UK pub chain has adopted the US practice of offering free soft drinks to "designated drivers" - one member of a party who will stay sober.

A scheme involving 40 Dublin pubs which offered free tea, coffee and soft drinks was praised by researchers for contributing to a change in drinkers' behaviour.

Another tactic sometimes used has been to offer people free minibus transport home at the end of the night. The Department of Transport is this year offering recipe cards for alcohol-free cocktails.

SO WILL THEY WORK?

Even with its radical policies, Sweden is seeing an increase in deaths - it has 150 deaths a year due to drink driving.

Thomas Andersson, of the Swedish Road Administration, says the country's figures might seem more severe than the UK's because the statistics were more thorough, but admitted that an estimated 15,000 Swedes drink and drive every day.

"There is a problem with young men aged 18-24 - their attitude is that you can drink beers and drive.

"We are campaigning at the festivals, particularly in the summer, we have one of the lowest limits in Europe, and we are introducing alcolocks."

And whereas Sweden is fighting the effects of an influx of cheap alcohol on a nation known historically for its abstinence, Britain has no such excuse.

For John Sparrow, of the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving, no amount of action can ever be enough.

His 16-year-old son was riding a bicycle with a carer in Cambridgeshire when both were mown down by a drink-driver who dangerously overtook a lorry. She was sentenced to 16 months.

"People do it because they think they can get away with it. Just to see a police car can be a good enough deterrent."


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