Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Viewpoint: Drink-drive limit should be cut

Warnings of tough new penalties for careless and drunk driving come at a crucial period, when the nights are lengthening and the Christmas party season is approaching. Few will argue with NIO Minister Paul Goggins when he proposes increasing the powers of the police and the courts to punish drivers who show little respect for their own or other people's lives.

There is to be a new offence of causing death or grievous injury by careless driving, with a maximum sentence of five years, compared to the present careless driving fine of £2,500. Ignoring police demands to stop could cost the maximum fine of £5,000 and it will be an offence to use electronic devices to detect speed cameras.

But there is no mention, in the NIO statement, of attempting to curb drink driving by reducing the permitted level of alcohol in drivers stopped by police. Last week, Environment Minister Arlene Foster said she was actively considering a cut to something like the average level in Europe, where the range is from zero to 50mg per 100ml _ with only the UK, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta and Switzerland as high as 80mg.

Surely this is something that Ministers here and in London should waste no time in introducing, when drunk driving is responsible for such a high proportion of fatal accidents, particularly among young men. In many parts of Europe, police do not need "probable cause" to breathalyse drivers and in Spain new drivers have a lower limit of 10mg. In Germany, if you are involved in a traffic offence, the limit drops from 50mg to 30mg, and you could serve five years after a fatal accident.

One of the novel aspects of the NIO proposals, which follow a three-month public consultation period last year, is that convicted drunk drivers could have breathalysers installed in their cars to prevent them starting the engine if they are over the limit. This device, known as an ignition interlock, was first introduced in Canada in 1991 and, after its use in Washington state in 2005, alcohol-related fatalities dropped by 11%. It would be a first in the UK, and would have to demonstrate its practicality, but public opinion is fast coming round to regarding drunk-driving as a zero-tolerance offence.

All the electronic devices in the world, however, are only as effective as the capacity of the PSNI to administer their use. The best deterrent against careless, dangerous and drunk driving has always been the physical presence of police cars and officers on the roads, but a recent survey has shown that motorists here are more confident than elsewhere of avoiding interception. If they drive badly, they should know that the law - and their insurance companies - will hit them hard.

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