Friday 5 December 2014

Taking the low road

Today sees the implementation of the lower drive-drive limit in Scotland. I’ve discussed the rights and wrongs of this at length in the past, so don’t propose to revisit that now. What is done is done. But here are some miscellaneous reflections on the topic.

Scotland has a distinctively different and more urban pub landscape than England and Wales. It doesn’t really have the characteristic village and country pubs that are commonplace south of the Border. For many people, the archetypal English pub is a thatched and half-timbered rural inn, whereas in Scotland it’s more likely to be a wood-and-mirrors city gin palace or a grim stand-up bar in the ground floor of a tenement block.

I can think of numerous pubs in England and Wales that it would be very hard to see surviving a limit cut, but there are proportionately fewer in Scotland. Having said that, outside the Central Belt it is a far-flung and sparsely-populated country, and a lot of drink-driving of both legal and illegal varieties takes place. Trade is unlikely to suddenly fall off a cliff, but outside the big cities there’s likely to be a slow but steady fall-off.

Many of those who pontificate on this subject seem to do so from inside a London (or Edinburgh) bubble and fail to appreciate that, across large swathes of the country, there are plenty of pubs where most, if not practically all, the customers travel by car. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who scarcely ever visit a pub unless they have driven there themselves. The politically correct may be reluctant to admit it, but very often that is the reality of the pub trade.

This is an interesting perspective on the issue from New Zealand, where a similar limit reduction has recently been implemented. The author suggests that those modelling the effects have significantly underestimated the extent to which it is likely to change behaviour. If you’re going out for a meal, it probably won’t put you off, but if you’re just calling in for a drink and a chat, you may very well conclude that if you can only have one pint rather than two, it isn’t really worth bothering at all.

The effects may well be like those of the smoking ban – a slow erosion of the customer base and camaraderie of pubs as people one by one drop out from the group and their friends increasingly follow suit. And, just like the smoker exiled to a draughty outside shelter, the drinker nursing his solitary pint where for twenty or thirty years he legally enjoyed a couple is going to feel that his pubgoing experience is forever diminished. People may put up with it – indeed a higher proportion of smokers than non-smokers still visit pubs – but they will never become entirely reconciled to it and it will create an abiding legacy of bitterness.

The point is often made that, following cuts in traffic policing, the chances of getting caught are very small. There’s undoubtedly much truth in this, but if people were willing to take the chance surely they would have been doing so already with the higher limit. The vast majority of the pub customers who currently believe they are keeping within the 80mg limit will adjust their behaviour to keep within 50mg, as they fundamentally wish to abide by the law and also don’t want to be seen breaking it by others. And, even if the chances of being stopped are negligible, the potential consequences are severe and in some cases could result in loss of livelihood and home and marital breakdown. Plus police attending accidents will now routinely breathalyse all drivers involved, even if obviously not at fault, so you can end up being tested due to circumstances entirely beyond your control. And no licensee should feel happy to be depending on customers who are taking a chance on breaking the law.

The New Zealand article also makes the point that those drivers who want to make sure they don’t fall foul of the law tend to keep well below the limit rather than possibly nudging up against it. With a lower limit, they will do the same. I also get the impression that New Zealand, and Australia, are much more willing to publicise the potential effect on blood-alcohol levels of various types and quantities of drinks, while in this country we continue to parrot the head-in-sand mantra of “don’t touch a drop” which doesn’t reflect the reality of real-world behaviour and also fails to take account of the morning-after issue.


  1. Remember this in Ireland?

  2. Indeed, I commented on it here - using some of the same points and phrases as in the above post.

  3. The politically correct, what a puerile turn of phrase.


  5. Not as puerile as the politically correct themselves, anonymous!

  6. Paul Bailey, is this what REAL people are thinking? Please tell me who are the'politically correct'? Why is alcohol consumption and drink driving an issue for the politically correct? Are people who are not politically correct unconcerned with drink driving and therefore happy to subsidise the cost of accidents and all the economic impact those drink driving accidents cause? Perhaps the politically correct are just not binary thinkers. As I said the use of the term in that context was puerile and nothing to do with political correctness just an excuse to use the expression.

  7. Stanley Blenkinsop6 December 2014 at 18:01

    The reality is that in most rural areas the combined effect of reduced police manpower and astute policing by the cops who are there mean drink-driving is tolerated more than in urban areas.
    The majority of rural road fatalities are boy racers who've never been near a pub rather than Mr Four Pints A Night Careful Driver.
    Who occasionally is the local plod.

  8. Will the so called clamp down on
    festive drinking include the Sunday afternoon restaurant trade,
    early morning commuter trade and of course 5-8 pm office guzzlers,
    no chance ,as in the past the prime targets set forth in police directives will be 10pm -2am time brackets. We all know the police would have a massive haul of successfull prosecutions if they
    pursued the daylight drunkards yet their resources are overwhelmingly concentrated on late evening. In simple words
    another pub hating frenzy hiding under bandages and shrouds.

  9. As your very own CAMRA advocated a policy that you should not be allowed to drink if you cannot afford pub prices, how is this different from you should not be allowed to drink if you cannot afford a taxi fare?

  10. Prohibition Percy7 December 2014 at 17:56

    It doesn't go far enough. The only way to stop this scourge is a zero limit and a law stating that, if you have drunk any alcohol whatsoever, you cannot drive for at least a month.

  11. Have you any figures for "the cost of accidents and all the economic impact" caused by drivers with between 50 and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood?

  12. I wonder how it is working so far? It's been very quiet since a bit of media circusry on the 5th.

    I'm disappointed that in the mainstream media there has been virtually no questioning of the lies the police have spouted during their rebranding of potential offenders from "drink drivers" to "drivers who drink". A senior police figure even stated that if you had to drive at all the next day you should have no alcohol at all at night as the effects of any drink would last well into the next day.

    Will I still have a pint and drive? Probably (though I haven't yet). Will I have two even if I am out all night? Probably not, as even though the chance of getting caught is very small, the punishment for infraction is very large. Casino justice and disproportionate penalties make bad laws. But the worm of doubt has burrowed into the skull.

    (I've commented before but no name on this one - after all, who knows who's watching :\ ?)

  13. I think there is an unforeseen consequence to very low drink drive limits. Being convicted becomes less of the stigma it is now. It becomes more like getting caught speeding, which itself is now regarded as little more than a parking ticket. The number of cameras and less leeway has increased speeding convictions so much that a speeding conviction no longer automatically results in an increased insurance premium.

  14. One example of how being caught will be less of a stigma is if the limit is low enough to catch those visiting B&Q on a Saturday morning after a convivial dinner party at home on the Friday night.

  15. I think there will be some stigma given that the penalty is far more severe than for speeding. However, many will take the view that anyone convicted with a BAC in the 50-80 range was simply unfortunate and has done nothing morally wrong.

  16. @Anon - see this post. There is an element of overreaction here, particularly if a police officer says if you've had a chocolate liqueur you shouldn't drive for 24 hours.

    Given that people's weight and metabolism varies so much, it's impossible to predict accurately what maximum BAC will result from a particular alcohol intake. However, I would say that, if you're a man of average or above weight, and your pint is 4.0% or less, it's vanishingly unlikely it will take you over 50 mg or indeed anywhere close to it. The same is true of two pints over the course of an evening from 8 pm to 11 pm - by the time you've finished, the first one will be fully metabolised.

  17. Thanks, indeed I had seen that post before and some other info on the same lines. After I posted, I thought it might read that I meant I would drink over the limit except for the punishment - my intention rather was to express that even though I know with as much certainty as I could have short of a test that I would be under the limit under the circumstances you describe - I would still worry. The official li(n)e is that "one drink will put you over" so "don't risk it - you will have a minimum 20 year criminal record". Probably true if you are an 8 st woman who downs a pint of Stella and jumps straight in the motor. For others, not true.

  18. Saying "one drink will put you over" is IMV counterproductive as people know it is untrue and it erodes the credibility of the message.

    This official booklet from 1986 does grudgingly admit that (with an 80mg limit) 3 units won't take you anywhere near.

    There's also a great reluctance to provide people with any information about how to work out whether they will be over the limit the following morning. Saying "if you've had anything to drink, don't drive the following day" is utter bollocks.


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