The drink driving limit in Scotland: Is the new law an unnecessary restriction on civil liberty?

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

On December 5th 2014, the alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland reduced from 80 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood, to 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood. The new law has been widely reported as a success, in reducing the number of driving offences year-on-year by 7.6%., according to Police Scotland.  However, this is a difficult statistic to contextualize. Have the police breathalysed fewer drivers? Are there fewer police officers carrying out breathalyer tests? At what time of day are people being breathalysed? Most importantly, are the drivers being prosecuted being caught by the new limit, or would they have been caught under the old legislation? We take a closer look at the statistics and the impact of the lower limit on Scottish people and businesses, and attempt to determine whether the effect has been worth the restriction.

Drink Driving Figures, Contextualized

New data has shown that year-on-year, drink driving is down 7.6 percent in Scotland. Through a Freedom of Information(FOI) request, Curated Media sought to give more context to this alleged reduction in drink driving offences. The request asked: 

1. How many people were breathalysed in the 9 months following the reduction in drink driving limits introduced on 5th December 2014? How did this compare to the same period in the preceding year?

2. How many people in each of the periods noted above were prosecuted for drink driving related offences?

The response obtained, in relation to the first question, was that the year on year information for the number of drivers breathalysed was not held by the Crown Office and thus, a request would need to be submitted to police Scotland. However, Police Scotland revealed figures for the festive period which only highlighted the problem with proclaiming an overall reduction in offences. A four-week seasonal campaign was carried out over the festive period, with an average of 579 drivers being stopped each day. Three percent of people stopped were over the limit, compared to two percent the preceding year, perhaps demonstrating that drink driving has increased for the period, year-on-year. However, this could also demonstrate, as a result of the festive drive carried out this year by police, the more people you breathalyse, the more people you catch drink driving. This calls into question claims that drink driving has decreased – the percentage revealed in the figures could be a result of fewer police on the roads, fewer drivers being stopped, or the time of day drivers are being stopped.

Furthermore, the year-on-year offences data doesn’t give the full story.  Recent DVLA figures obtained by The Herald through an FOI request reveal over 20,000 drivers have been banned from driving for drink-driving and other alcohol-related driving offences. However, the statists also show that the number of drivers banned for the minimum term of 12 months for drink-driving offences fell between 2011 and 2015 from 4904 to 3597 – a decrease of 26.6%, or an average fall of 6.8% per year. Not far off the fall in drink driving offences generally for this year (7.6%) attributed to the change in the law.

Is the new law working?  

On top of the numbers detailing a reduction in drink-driving related offences, in order to get an accurate picture of the effect of the new limit on these figures, we also need to know how many drivers were between the new limit, and the old limit. This gives a better indication of the effect of the law. 

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said, in relation to the festive period drive:

 “Of the 459 drivers caught drink driving, just 19 were found to be between the old and new limit.

“This shows that the majority of those caught are well over the limit which is why we are working with Police Scotland on enforcement campaigns like this to crack down on this persistent minority.”

This is consistent with the answer to our second FOI request question, revealing that  in the period 5 December 2013 to 4 September 2014, proceedings were raised in respect of 2,838 drink driving charges. In the period between 5 December 2014 to 4 September 2015, proceedings were raised in respect of 2,536 of those charges – a gross reduction of 302. However, only 80 of these cases were between the new limit and the old limit. The rest would still be committing an offence under the old limit. This highlights that for the most part, drivers being caught under drink driving legislation will drink far more than the legal limit – they are mot marginal cases. This begs the question as to whether lowering the limit was the best means of preventing dangerous drink driving, and also whether the new law is an unreasonable restriction on those who fear the law to the point of restricting their lifestyle.

Is the new law unnecessarily restrictive?

Whilst causing danger to yourself and others through drink driving is entirely unacceptable, the new law is not catching people marginally over the limit who may pose a slight risk. The law continues to punish those who are choosing to put themselves and others at risk through drinking well over the limit, and well over the old limit.

Critics of the change in the law have openly stated that it is merely punishing sensible drinkers, pubs and restaurants. Many Scottish people will no longer have a small drink with their meal, or one drink after work for fear of being caught under the lowered limit.  The Bank of Scotland’s chief economist Donald MacRae said the hospitality industry was suffering as a result of a “changing pattern of spending”. But it is not just fear of having a drink then driving that is damaging the industry, but also fear of residual alcohol in the blood stream following a night of drinking. More and more people are skipping the pub or drinks in restaurants due to driving obligations the following day. New research from the Scottish Government and Road Safety Scotland (part of Transport Scotland) revealed that 67% of people wouldn’t consider driving the morning after drinking. However, this is not necessarily stopping people from driving after a night out, but stopping people going on nights out at all. This is seen by some as being an overly restrictive move by the government, a dictation of lifestyle. It may also be argued that the government is inappropriately using road traffic legislation to combat the problem of alcohol culture in Scotland, as opposed to focusing on making the roads safer.


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Emma Flood 1 Article
Emma Flood graduated from the University of Glasgow with a First Class Honours degree in Law and now works for Curated Media, the legal content specialists, as creative content expert and content strategist. Her writing interests include legal issues, Scottish politics and women's issues.

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