President's Log

AA President Edmund King shares his thoughts

AA President Edmund King The Government is shortly due to produce a new road safety strategy and set fresh targets for reducing death and injury. Before they do this the Transport Secretary is seeking advice from Sir Peter North QC on the important issues of drink and drugs.

These are essential issues particularly if we are to achieve the Government's laudable aim to make Britain’s roads the safest in the world.

In 2008, drinking and driving accounted for 430 deaths, and survey evidence suggests that drug driving is a growing problem. Half of drivers believe drug driving is a more common and more serious problem than drink-driving, according to a poll of 17,500 AA/Populus panel members.

We don't know the true extent of drug-driving as there's currently no type-approved roadside drugalyser in the UK, despite them already being in use across Europe, and in Australia, South Africa and the USA.

The police instead use Field Impairment Tests (FIT). This involves the police observing any pupil dilation and then the suspect:

  • Counting out 30 seconds
  • Walking nine paces and back
  • Balancing on one leg
  • Touching the nose with eyes closed

These are rarely carried out though, and some drug drivers beat the system by having a half-pint of lager before taking drugs. When stopped they are simply breathalysed, pass the test and are sent on their way. Coroners do not routinely check for the presence of illicit drugs in drivers killed on the road and this needs to change.

Drink and drug driving have been flagged up in the top three issues of concern to motorists in an AA/Populus poll of 15,000 motorists last month.

Drug driving will raise some legal challenges. Should we set a legal limit for illegal substances? For drink-driving, the current law is clear. If the driver is over the legal limit an offence has been committed. For drug-driving, impairment has to be proved.

Or will Sir Peter take the police view and make it an offence to drive with traces of an illicit drug in the system? This could cause problems for the millions of cannabis users as traces of cannabis can stay in the body for up to four weeks – although not in the saliva. Will the review also look at medicinal drugs which can affect driving?

In terms of drink-driving, the headline will be the possible reduction in the drink-drive limit. One option that will be considered is whether to lower the limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrams. This would bring the UK into line with other European countries; a proposal to change the limits is also being considered in Scotland.

Sixty six per cent of AA members have indicated that they would support a lower drink drive limit with 20% opposed. However, the legal issue is more complex than the limit as a sliding scale of penalties could reduce the deterrent effect. For example, in the UK drink drivers are automatically banned for at least 12 months but that is not the case for those between 50 and 80mg in France where they receive penalty points.

There is a serious problem with drink-drive repeat offenders with recent figures from the East of England suggesting that almost a quarter of drink drivers are repeat offenders. Changing the limit will not really affect repeat offenders who often have a drink problem rather than a driving problem.

The majority of those drivers killed in alcohol related crashes are way over the limit rather than just over or just under. So although reducing the limit will bring some benefits it will not solve the problems of repeat offenders or those well over the limit. Here we need better police targeting and rehabilitation. Some will argue that lower limits will kill off rural pubs, but if there is evidence that drivers are impaired with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol then the limit should be lowered.

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March 2010