Saturday 4 August 2012

The real reason why

I passed my driving test in November 1976 and gained my legal drinking spurs the following year. At that time, ten years after the breathalyser law had been introduced, it was still regarded as entirely normal and responsible behaviour to drive to the pub and drink within the legal limit. For very many people, that was the default mode of pubgoing. They had their own view of what the limit meant for them, and kept within it. Sometimes they might push it with the odd extra half or pint but, given that there is often a considerable grey area between the accepted wisdom and what actually breaches the law, they were usually OK.

Very occasionally, someone might get done for drink-driving and banned but, provided they weren’t grossly over, the reaction in their peer group would be sympathy rather than condemnation. Indeed, the feedback from people’s breathalyser results and the amount they had drunk would help form a view as to what level of consumption would be acceptable. Over the years, the few people I have known who have been convicted of drink-driving have all, in their various ways, been asking for it, not marginal cases.

In the late 70s and early 80s, this pattern of pubgoing sustained very many pubs. Plenty of today’s food houses didn’t even serve meals in the evenings. 1979, it must be remembered, was the all-time peak of beer sales in pubs. But it must be made absolutely clear: this was (and remains) legal. Virtually no pub was kept in business by lawbreakers.

For me, and (from comments and e-mails) many other people, getting in the car and going out to explore country pubs, while taking it in turns to do the driving and keep within the limit, was a regular weekend leisure activity. But people don’t seem to do that any more, much to the cost of pubs.

I remember in 1985 seeing posters saying “Stay Low”, but before too long the official message had become “Have None for the Road” – something that had no basis in either the law or statistical risk profiles. However, that is a message that has been increasingly taken up by those attaining the legal driving age beyond that date, and now very many of the younger generation will not even have a half of lager if they are driving. The general message in the media is that, if you are driving, you should not drink anything at all.

This must be recognised as a major factor – probably THE major factor – in the decline of the pub trade outside major urban centres over the past couple of decades, well ahead of the smoking ban, important though that is. People are unwilling to drive to the pub and drink within the legal limit, even though it remains a lawful activity. They don’t in general find another way to go to the pub, they simply don’t go at all. This is certainly the key reason for the decline of the upmarket pub, as far as drinking is concerned. Arguably most of the claimed benefits of the oft-advocated 50mg drink-driving limit have already been realised. If you want to know Whatever Happened to Pubs? this is it.

Sometimes I go in pubs where drink-driving within the law is still commonplace, indeed where that is what largely keeps the pub going. But it is predominantly done by customers over the age of 50, and as they age the business of the pub will diminish and it will eventually close or go over entirely to food.

For what it’s worth, since 1976 I have driven over 350,000 miles, with only a single speeding conviction in 1981. I have been breathalysed precisely once, after consuming an amount of alcohol that I believed would leave me comfortably within the legal limit, something the test confirmed.


  1. It's the balance between risk and personal freedom.
    At the moment the scales are distorted by media scaremongering same old.
    Just over 2000 road accident deaths last year in the UK.
    About 1 in every 30,000 people.
    491,000 deaths overall.
    Just ban everything ,that seems to be the mantra.
    Doesn't make any difference to that rough figure of 500,000 though seems to be a constant!
    Probably because if you don't drive your more likely to be "run over",all bans do is distort the risk and move it to another area of risk.

  2. Good point. IMO It also may have had a part to play in why soft drinks have risen in price so much since I lived in a pub in the late 80s/early 90s.

  3. I tend to regard the argument that pubs are profiteering on soft drinks as a bit of a canard, but there is no doubt that they have become much more a part of the core product range rather than just a sideline.

  4. Surely another factor stopping people from exploring distant pubs by car is the extortionate cost of the fuel…

    And yet, as with beer duty, the Government keeps piling on fuel duty increases (though at least they "generously" postpone some of them — don't see that happening with beer duty!)

  5. The fact that you passed a breathalyser test is irrelevant to whether or not your driving was affected by your drinking: the clear fact is that even a small amount of alcohol makes you a worse driver, as is demonstrated by the review of the literature here, which
    "provides strong evidence that impairment of some driving-related skills begins with any departure from zero BAC.By 0.050 g/dl [that would be about a pint or a pint and a half for a normal-sized man], the majority of studies have reported impairment by alcohol. By BACs of 0.080 g/dl [2-2.5 pints], 94% of the studies reviewed reported impairment."

    However, what really pulls the rug out from under your argument is the plunge in the number of drink-driving fatalities in the UK, from more than 1,600 a year in 1979 to fewer than 250 in 2010. Are you really suggesting that your freedom to drive to the pub and have a couple of pints is worth 1,300 deaths a year? Are you really suggesting that thousands of people now alive should really be dead, so that people could take their car to the pub without fear of being breathalysed?

  6. Umm, Martyn, those stats are fatalities involving drivers over the legal alcohol limit, which makes your argument irrelevant.

  7. If I didn't go to the pub in the car, and stick to the limit, I wouldn't go at all.

  8. So, Martyn, you don't want people to smoke in pubs, and you don't want people to visit pubs if they are going to drink any alcohol at all and then drive. Do you actually want any pubs to remain open?

  9. I legally drink and drive only occasionally, as there are about 15 real ale pubs within 30 minutes' walking distance of my home. If I lived somewhere remote, I may well use the car and drink within the legal limit in preference to the social isolation of staying at home.

    I don't trust official stats. The police like to say that there has been X number of accidents in which drink was a factor. That's a careful choice of words, because 'factor' does not mean 'cause'. They include drivers who are under the limit, and include those accidents where drink was definitely not the cause. Such stats are worthless. I challenged a report in my local paper that quoted official statements, but, despite a reminder, have received no reply to date and don't expect one. I believe my local rag won't risk being seen as questioning official anti-alcohol propaganda.

    In reply to Martin: your suggestion that drinkers who drive after drinking within the limit are content with the death toll as a price worth paying for using the car is contemptible tosh. The real dangers on the road are those drivers who drink whatever they want and get behind the wheel blind drunk. Unfortunately, there are some young people who are quoting that old 70s nonsense that "I can drive better after I've been drinking". It's not just the lads - young women are increasingly driving drunk too. Tinkering with the limit, or even introducing a limit of zero, will do nothing to deter such stupidity.

  10. Martyn: The fact that you passed a breathalyser test is irrelevant to whether or not your driving is of a decent standard to begin with either.

    Life isn't a series of homogenous tasks that we are all capable of performing to the same degree of competence. The Olympics should surely illustrate that very well. The champion archer can fire arrows at a target better than I can sober even if he is three sheets to the wind, just as Vettel could probably handle a car better after three pints of Stella than half-blind Aunt Maud in her 10 year old Nissan Micra. Arbitrary limits are piss poor as a guide of any kind of skill.

  11. The only reason I mentioned that I had passed a breathalyser test (and thus never been convicted of drink-driving) was to underline the point that I am not a whingeing victim. In much the same way as those campaigning against speed cameras and draconian speed enforcement are often - wrongly - accused of only doing so because they have been convicted themselves.

  12. Well you know that I think you petrolheads are a stange bunch...But I'm with you on this one. Red Nev summarised it well and, frankly, I'm surprised at Martyn's comments.

  13. An interesting piece and some interesting comments-in particular Martyns ill judged remarks (his subsequent silence is telling) and RedNevs excellent rebuttal-for my part I will occasionally drive out to pubs, and would have no hesitation at all in drinking a pint (may be a pint and a half over a longer period) and driving home-my only caveat being that I would pay due attention to the strength of the beer-the real issue is with those who will either intentionally drive after consuming too much or make an ill-judged decision to "take a chance" and drive home-the bigger danger for me, other than such people, are the idiots who speed everywhere, drive erratically or those clowns whose lives are so important that they must answer/use their mobile phones whilst driving.

  14. Even if you consider this to be entirely positive in terms of road safety, it is undeniable that it has had a negative impact on the trade of very many pubs outside of major urban centres, and that it is a piece of social history worth recording.


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