Blood alcohol limit in UK should be reduced, review says

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 18 June 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c3315
  1. Mark Pownall
  1. 1London

    An independent review of UK legislation on driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs has urged that the current blood alcohol limit of 80 mg/100 ml (17.4 mmol/l) be reduced to 50 mg/100 ml (10.9 mmol/l), that random breath testing of drivers be introduced, and that a lower limit of 20 mg/100 ml be considered for younger drivers.

    It also wants closure of a legal loophole so that high risk drink drivers cannot resume driving after a ban until they are passed as fit by doctors approved by the Department of Transport.

    The review calls for a staged approach to strengthening action against driving while under the influence of drugs. It wants nurses working in police custody suites to be able to determine whether a suspect may have been using a drug, which would mean that they required a blood test—currently a role for forensic physicians only. And it calls for screening of saliva samples for opiates, amphetamines, methamphetamine, cocaine, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, methadone, and ecstasy to be introduced.

    The review, the first major review of UK drink and drug driving laws for 34 years, was commissioned by Andrew Adonis, the transport secretary in the previous government, and carried out by the internationally renowned legal scholar Peter North. It says that the NHS and the Department of Health should remind doctors throughout their career to give clear advice to patients on the effects on driving of any drugs they prescribe. It also calls for a simple system for giving information to patients on the effects on driving of prescribed drugs.

    The deputy chairman of the BMA’s Board of Science, Ram Moorthy, said, “The BMA has lobbied for a reduction in the drink driving limit for over 20 years. We believe that such a move will help prevent deaths and reduce the number of lives ruined by drink driving. A reduction in the limit would also bring the UK in line with most other European countries.”

    A study commissioned by the Department of Transport from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, released to coincide with the North report, estimates that 16 000 injuries and 43 to 168 lives caused by car crashes could be saved in the first year of a reduction in the blood alcohol limit for drivers.

    The government said it would balance Lord North’s recommendations against concerns raised by the drinks industry of damage to rural pubs. The transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said, “This report makes 51 detailed recommendations, which we need to consider carefully with other government departments. In doing so, it is important that we fully investigate the economic and public service resource impact of any suggested changes to the law.”

    Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said that Mr Hammond’s response was “lukewarm” but acknowledged the difficulty for governments in receiving reports commissioned by their predecessors.

    “I very much hope ministers will see this as part of their strong commitment to public health and to reduce the harm to society produced by alcohol misuse. The recommendation to reduce the limit will save lives, if implemented. This needs to be combined with tougher policing of the legislation through the introduction of random breath testing. This has been shown, in Australia, to have an effect on accidents and on wider alcohol related harm beyond drink driving.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c3315


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