Everything You Need To Know About Drink and Drug Driving

Drink driving cause injury and death, not only to the drink drivers themselves, but to other road users and pedestrians. Despite the many, well-publicised campaigns over the years, it remains one of the most common offences prosecuted in the Magistrates' Court under the Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988.

The latest Government figures available show that in 2014, drink driving contributed to

  • 220 deaths
  • 880 serious injuries
  • 4,530 minor injuries

That is a total of 5,620 fatalities or injuries on UK roads caused by drink driving.

This is however a significant improvement when compared to 1979, during which there were 1,380 deaths and 18,090 injuries caused by drink driving.

This shows beyond any doubt that the ‘don’t drink and drive’ message is getting through to the British public.

How alcohol impairs driving performance

Alcohol slows the activity of the central nervous system, and this includes the brain.  Extensive studies on alcohol and driving have shown that a person does not even have to be over the legal limit for alcohol to begin to affect their judgement.

Drink can affect a person’s ability to drive by causing: 

  • delayed reaction times
  • blurred vision
  • drowsiness
  • inability to think, reason or plan ahead
  • reduced concentration 
  • reduced ability to interpret road signs and speed limits
  • an inability to judge your position on the road, making it easy to cross the centre line etc
  • impaired assessment of risk.

Although you may think you are driving safely, alcohol can impair your judgement and sense of reality, resulting in you failing to obey road signals or not reacting quickly enough in an emergency situation.

No one is a better driver after they have consumed alcohol.

What are drink driving limits?

The amount of alcohol you can consume before you get behind a wheel of a care differs across various parts of the UK.

In England and Wales, the drink drive limit is 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath or 107 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of urine.

In Scotland, the legal amount you can drink before driving is 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood. The breath alcohol equivalent reduced to 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.  This brings Scotland into line with the legal alcohol limit that applies in most other European countries.

How much can you drink and drive legally?

This depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • your age
  • your size and weight
  • whether you are a man or a woman
  • whether you have recently eaten food
  • your stress levels
  • the type of alcohol you have consumed

Remember, you may still be over the legal alcohol limit to drive the next day.  Alcohol takes time to work through your body; showers, coffee and/or food will not hasten the process.

The only way to be completely sure that you remain legal to drive is to refrain from drinking alcohol if you are getting behind the wheel of a car.

How the police will test if you are driving under the influence of alcohol

Preliminary tests

If you are pulled over by the police on suspicion of drink driving, police officers will first use a breathalyser to establish whether or not you are over the limit.  This is called a preliminary test.  There are two others, including:

  • a preliminary field impairment test which checks whether someone is unfit to drive because he or she is under the influence of either drink or drugs
  • a preliminary drug test. This tests whether a person is unfit to drive because they are under the influence of drugs

The field impairment test could include the police asking you to perform a balancing exercise, doing a non-invasive eye test and/or co-ordination exercises.

A preliminary test can be requested either when the police officer reasonably suspects a defendant is driving, has driven or will drive, or be in charge of a vehicle, and reasonably believes a defendant was driving, attempting to drive or be in charge of a vehicle at the time of an accident.

It is an offence under the RTA 1988, s 6(6) to fail to co-operate with a preliminary test when required to do so, without reasonable excuse.  

The Court has to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there was no reasonable excuse for the defendant not to co-operate.  The most common ground is medical reasons, which will need to be proven by a doctor.

Failure of preliminary drink driving test

The table below illustrates the likely cause of action the police will take following a preliminary breath test result.

Breath test result Police Action
35 or below You will not be charged and are free to go
between 36 & 39 You are likely to be sent on your way with caution or without charge but police can demand you come to the police station for another test
between 40 & 50 You have a legal right to ask to provide an alternative specimen for analysis (blood or urine)
51 or higher You will be charged with drink driving (you may be asked to provide two further breath samples at the police station)
unreliable results You may be asked to provide an alternative specimen for analysis (blood or urine)
device unavailable You may be asked to provide an alternative specimen for analysis (blood or urine)

Penalties for drink driving

If you are found guilty of drink driving the consequences can be severe.

According to the Government guidelines available on their website, the following penalties apply in drink driving cases:

Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink

You may get:

  • three months’ imprisonment
  • up to £2,500 fine
  • a possible driving ban

Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink

You may get:

  • 6 months’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a driving ban for at least 1 year (3 years if convicted twice in 10 years)

Refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis

You may get:

  • six months’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a ban from driving for at least 1 year

Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink

You may get:

  • 14 years’ imprisonment
  • an unlimited fine
  • a ban from driving for at least 2 years
  • an extended driving test before your licence is returned

Defences available for drink driving

Under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, a defendant will have a defence to a charge of driving with excess alcohol if they argue that the excess alcohol in their body was consumed after they stopped driving but before the breath/blood/urine sample was taken. In such cases the defendant must prove on the balance of probabilities that at the time they were driving their alcohol level was below the prescribed limit.

This defence is known as the 'hip flask' defence. Expert evidence will usually be required by the defence to prove this.

Driving under the influence of drugs

It is against the law to drive if you are under the influence of illegal drugs.  The law was changed in 2015 to make it easier for police to apprehend and convict drivers who used drugs and proceeded to get behind the wheel of a car.

There are 17 types of drugs (which include medical as well as controlled drugs) that police can test for if they suspect you are under the influence of a substance.

Drugs that can be tested for at the roadside are cannabis and cocaine, while the evidential laboratory test can identify all the drugs covered by the law including ecstasy, LSD, ketamine and heroin.

The new law is proving effective, with around 8,000 arrests for drug driving made last year.

If you are caught driving under the influence of drugs, you face a minimum 12-month driving ban, up to six months in prison, an unlimited fine and a criminal record.

Drunk driving equals dangerous driving

The dangers of driving whilst drunk or high on drugs is well documented.  If an accident results, it can change the lives of both the victim and perpetrator forever.  

Both the police and the courts are committed to stamping out drink driving.  There is little by way of defence available to an accused and penalties are harsh.

Your safest option?  If you are going out drinking, leave the car at home and call a cab.  Or make one of your friends a designated driver and ensure they do not drink any alcohol.

Drink driving wreaks lives.  Like they say so eloquently in New Zealand – “if you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot”.

It’s just not worth it.

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