The government’s latest consultation on improving road safety has revived the idea of introducing so-called “random breath testing” for motorists. Ministers claim that giving the police the power to stop any driver, regardless of how they are driving, would be a powerful deterrent. At present, the police can stop only those drivers who have committed a moving traffic offence, who have been involved in an accident, or who they suspect of having exceeded the legal limit.
In fact, of course, “random breath testing” is nothing of the kind. That implies that the police will set up roadblocks and stop every seventh vehicle, or whatever. But what is really being proposed is “unfettered discretion”, an entirely different concept, that the police can test any driver, whenever and wherever they choose, regardless of any suspicion or evidence.
It is hard to see this making any difference to current conviction rates, as the key constraint on the number of breath tests is police resources, not powers. The police interpret their existing powers very broadly and in practice can already test anyone they want to. What is the point of testing someone when you have no grounds to suspect they may be offending? A senior traffic police officer has stated on an internet forum that there has never been a single occasion in his career where the current law prevented him from carrying out a breath test where he considered one was justified. And the reason the number of breath tests administered has fallen in recent years is because so many traffic police officers have been replaced by speed cameras, which of course are singularly useless in detecting drink-drive offenders.
What this measure will do is further erode the basic principle of a free society that the police should not treat anyone as a suspect without due cause. It has been described as “sus on wheels”, but in reality it is even worse that the old “sus” law as there is no requirement even to demonstrate the slightest suspicion of offending.
A further concern that it will remove any constraints on the unreasonable targeting of specific individuals or establishments. If the police did not like how a particular pub was being run, they could target its customers to the point that it was closed down. It is no use saying that the innocent have nothing to fear, as if you were routinely harassed when visiting a specific pub, you would naturally choose either to go elsewhere or not bother at all. Given recent news stories about the abuse of police powers, you have to question whether the police should be given “unfettered discretion” to wipe their own backsides.
The best way of reducing drink-drive offending is surely to provide drivers with realistic, honest information about how to abide by the law, while carrying out proportionate, carefully targeted enforcement. Regrettably, the government, obsessed with the unrealistic concept of “even one drink is dangerous” – which has no basis in fact – seem disinclined to see sense.