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Overview of drink driving law

This article provides an overview of drink driving law in the UK. It starts with a brief history of legislation in the area, then turns to the current offences and penalties for drink driving, and ends by looking at the way the police test drink driving suspects.

(1) History of Drink Driving Law

The UK passed its first drink driving law in 1872. No automobiles existed then, so it only applied to driving a carriage, a steam engine, a horse, or cattle. Violating the law carried a maximum fine of forty shillings and one month imprisonment.

It took until 1925 for the UK to pass a law covering the new "mechanically propelled vehicles" buzzing around the nation's highways. This and other early attempts to prohibit drink driving all shared the same defects, however: they all failed to adequately define the offence or stipulate ways to prove guilt. Consequently, only drivers found manifestly drunk while driving were ever likely to be arrested (let alone prosecuted).

In 1962, Harold Macmillan's government passed the Road Traffic Act, which provided for the first time for analytical tests on the presence of alcohol in bodily fluids -- but it still failed to stipulate a specific alcohol concentration limit.

As the numbers of roads and drivers increased, so did accidents. News stories about drink driving deaths and injuries started to proliferate and, almost overnight, drink driving became socially unacceptable.

In 1967, the UK passed the Road Safety Act which made it illegal to drive or be in charge of a vehicle after consuming so much alcohol that the proportion of it in the blood, breath, or urine exceeds the 'prescribed limit'. The prescribed limits were set at:

  • 35 milligrammes (mg) of alcohol in 100 millilitres (ml) of breath;
  • 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood; or
  • 107 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of urine.

The statute also introduced roadside alcohol screening for the first time.

The 1967 Act, along with various other statutory provisions and penalties, have since been repealed and replaced with broadly similar provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988, the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, and the Road Traffic Act 1991.

(2) Drink Driving Offences and Penalties

The penalties for drink driving offences are shown in the table below. Before looking at the table, however, be aware that there are a number of nuances, and additional aggravating and mitigating factors for each offence. You'll find an analysis of these nuances and additional factors in another Learn About the Law article: Drink Driving Penalties .

OFFENCE

PENALTIES

Prison sentence

Fine

Disqualification *

Endorsement / Penalty points **

Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs

1 year minimum;

14 years maximum

Unlimited

Obligatory -- 2 years minimum *

3-11 pts for 11 yrs

Driving or attempting to drive when under the influence of drink or drugs

6 months maximum

£5,000 maximum

Obligatory -- 1 year minimum, up to a maximum of 3 yrs *

3-11 pts for 11 yrs

In charge of a vehicle when under the influence of drink or drugs

3 months maximum

£2,500 maximum

Discretionary

10 pts for 11 yrs

Driving or attempting to drive with alcohol concentration above prescribed limit

6 months maximum

£5,000 maximum

Obligatory -- 1 year minimum, up to a maximum of 3 yrs *

3-11 pts for 4 yrs

In charge of a vehicle with alcohol concentration above prescribed limit

3 months

£2,500 maximum

Discretionary

10 pts for 4yrs

Failure to co-operate with preliminary test

£1,000 maximum

Discretionary

4 pts for 4 yrs

Failure to provide an evidential specimen for analysis (after driving / attempting to drive)

6 months maximum

£5,000 maximum

Obligatory -- 1 year minimum, up to a maximum of 3 yrs *

3-11 pts for 11 yrs

Failure to provide an evidential specimen for analysis (after being in charge)

3 months maximum

£2,500 maximum

Discretionary

10 pts for 4yrs

Failure to give permission for laboratory test (after driving / attempting to drive)

6 months maximum

£5,000 maximum

Obligatory -- 1 year minimum, up to a maximum of 3 yrs *

3-11 pts for 11 yrs

Failure to give permission for laboratory test (after driving / attempting to drive)

3 months maximum

£2,500 maximum

Discretionary

10 pts for 4yrs

* If you were convicted of a similar offence within a ten year period preceding the most recent crime, a mandatory three year minimum period of disqualification will be imposed for 'causing death by careless driving when under the influence', ' driving or attempting to drive when under the influence of drink or drugs', 'driving or attempting to drive with alcohol concentration above prescribed limit', or 'failing to provide a specimen (after driving/attempting to drive)'. Note also that the judge may grant a 25% reduction in the period of disqualification for attending a drink driving rehabilitation course .

** If the court disqualifies a driver for an offence, no penalty points will be imposed.

(3) Drink Driving Tests

A preliminary roadside breath test may be required by a constable in uniform who has reasonable cause to suspect a person driving or in charge of a vehicle on a road or other public place has alcohol in his or her body or has committed a traffic offence.

If the driver fails to submit to a test or the test shows the driver has a breath alcohol level above 35 mg, the police may arrest him or her. To actually prove that the driver has committed a drink driving offence, however, the police will take him or her back to the police station and carry out additional testing. (NB. This is because the police use hand-held breathalysers for roadside stops, which sometimes provide inaccurate results. Since these results cannot be relied on, they are not admissible as evidence in court proceedings.)

Once back at the station, the police will usually ask the suspect to provide two additional breath specimens using a larger evidential breath testing device. The lower reading of the two breath specimens should be used and the other ignored.

If the lower of the two breath specimens is no more than 50 mg, the suspect may request that a sample of blood or urine be taken. The decision as to which of the two is taken is made by the police constable. This sample is then used to establish whether an offence has been committed and the earlier breath tests are ignored.

Crown Prosecution Service guidance on drink driving offences states that although the prescribed breath alcohol limit is 35 mg, a driver will not be prosecuted with a breath alcohol level of less than 40 mg.

In some circumstances (e.g., where a suspect cannot provide breath specimens because of some medical condition), the police may ask for a blood or urine specimen. As noted above, the prescribed limit for alcohol in the blood is 80 mg per 100 ml of blood, and for urine it is 107 mg per 100 ml of urine. Unlike the breath alcohol limit, these limits are strictly applied.

Should I Consult a Solicitor?

If you've been charged with a drink driving related offence, you need to consider your position very carefully as the penalties can be severe. In every case, you are strongly advised to seek legal advice. You can find a criminal law solicitor in your area via Contact Law .

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