A Fresh Look At Drink-Drive Deaths And Injuries In Britain

11 January 2023

To coincide with the Second Reading of the Road Safety Bill, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety today publishes a fresh look at the likely reductions in deaths and severe injuries in drink-drive crashes if the Government lowered the maximum permitted Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Level from 80mg to 50mg per 100mlle of blood [i.e., the equivalent, in the USA, to BACs of 0.08% and 0.05%, respectively — DSA]. The new estimates have been made by Professor Richard Allsop of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London.

Professor Allsop concludes that lowering the current BAC level could lead to about 65 fewer deaths and 230 fewer severe injuries on our roads per year based on the 2003 road casualty figures. In monetary terms, this represents a saving to society of £119m, based on the values attributed to preventing death and injury in the Department for Transport publication “Highways Economic Note Number 1”.

His conclusions are based on information initially published or referred to in the 1998 Department for the Environment, Transport, and the Regions consultation document entitled “Combating Drink Driving: Next Steps.” This proposed, among several measures, that the BAC should be lowered from 80 to 50, suggesting that such a course of action would save 50 lives per year and around 250 serious injuries. Annex 2 of the consultation document outlines the basis for that calculation, which states that “caution has been built into the assumptions, and the actual effect could well be higher.” The full text of the consultation document can be found on the Department for Transport’s website: www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_rdsafety/documents/page/dft_rdsafety504532.hcsp

In his fresh look at the figures, Professor Allsop has started from the same review of evidence about drunk driving in Great Britain as provided the basis for Annex 2. Like that in Annex 2, his estimate focuses on current driving with BACs within the range of 50 to 110, within 30mg of the current limit. It is assumed that drivers remaining below the legal limit would still keep below it if the limit were lowered. Those exceeding the limit by up to 30mg would also be likely to reduce their drinking if the limit were lowered. As with the 1998 consultation document, the estimate of lives saved depends on a combination of analysis and assumptions about behavior and leaves aside any reduction in deaths that might come from reduced drinking by those already below 50mg or above 110mg.

Professor Allsop commented on the estimates, “Reducing the limit from 80mg to 50mg can save about 65 lives a year or around half of those who die in accidents where the driver’s BAC is within 30mg of the current limit. In addition, only about 1 in 50 driving during weekend evenings and nights will need to moderate their drinking to achieve this and fewer still at other times.”

The call to lower the drink drive limit was made at a press conference at the House of Commons chaired by David Kidney, MP for Stafford and PACTS’ co-chair, and organized jointly by PACTS, the British Medical Association, and Alcohol Concern. Speaking at the conference, Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, Head of BMA Science and Ethics, said, “There is no excuse for keeping the drink-drive limit at 80mg in the United Kingdom. Nearly every European country has a 50mg limit, and we must follow this lead. Every death represents a family tragedy, and every serious injury can devastate the person involved and their relatives.”

Geethika Jayatilaka, Director of Policy and Public Affairs for Alcohol Concern, added, “Drink driving is often used as an example of where we have successfully changed cultural attitudes to drinking. However, we shouldn’t forget that we can still do more. These new figures clarify that we need to back this potentially life-saving measure and campaign to reduce the Blood Alcohol Content Level from 80 to 50mg.”

Source: Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety

DSA Comments: Almost a year ago, the British Government failed to reduce the Blood Alcohol Content limit from 0.08% to 0.05%, despite solid guidelines from the European Union urging all member countries to do so, in the light of massive evidence now showing that 0.05% should be the maximum limit at which people can still drive with a reasonable degree of safety.
We suggest that whether or not they will change the situation now has much more to do with the risk of Labour losing votes at the forthcoming general election than with any desire they may or may not have for saving lives on Britain’s roads.
We believe their refusal to lower the BAC limit in 2004 and the planned reduction of penalties for “minor” speeding offenses (see the article below) are both cynical adventures in retaining as many votes as possible.
In addition, reducing the number of traffic patrol police officers in the UK, on the fallacious grounds that red-light and speed cameras had somehow superseded the officers, was another serious setback to road safety.
For eight years out of the last sixteen, Britain has had the safest roads of any developed nation in the world and, for the other eight years, has held chiefly second place, with an occasional third. [Relevant tables here and here.] But in the last 3-4 years, other countries have gained ground on Britain’s excellent achievements. Yet even though the good progress of all nations is the ultimate and most desirable goal, we believe that Britain could have been making much more progress than it currently is. And for that lack of progress, we firmly lay the blame at the British Government’s door.
Eddie Wren, Executive Director, Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.