/ Motoring

Is zero tolerance the answer to our drink driving problem?

Car keys by pint of beer

Morning-after drink driving is on the rise, with more than a third of motorists admitting to driving first thing after excessive drinking the night before. So should we be opting for a zero tolerance approach?

A survey by road safety charity Brake and insurer Direct Line has found 38% (304 out of 800 people surveyed) of road users admit to driving first thing after drinking excessively the night before.

That’s a fairly large proportion of motorists. So with Christmas parties looming and drink driving being a focal point of road safety this month, would reverting to a zero-tolerance attitude be the answer?

Drink-driving in numbers

Which? has a strong focus on road and car safety – this is why we use the strictest crash tests as part of our car reviews and child car seat tests to determine which are best for the wellbeing of you and your family. But drink driving isn’t so clear-cut.

And sadly, it is still one of the biggest killers on our roads today. A total of 380 people were killed on our roads last year in accidents involving drivers over the drink-drive limit. That’s seven deaths per week, as well as 28 serious injuries.

And the Institute of Alcohol Studies estimates an additional 80 road deaths per year are caused by drivers who are under the limit, but have alcohol in their blood.

So why are so many of us still drink-driving? Road safety groups blame a lack of education, not enough enforcement and an out-of-date drink-drive limit.

Will zero tolerance work?

Earlier this month, the all-party Transport Select Committee called for a reduction of the drink-drive limit to 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, down from the current law of 80mg per 100ml. This would effectively mean one alcoholic drink would put you over the limit. And the committee also recommended a year-long ban for anyone caught over the new limit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the suggestion has been faced with strong opposition. Many believe the current law is effective enough to reduce drink-driving deaths. Others argue it will destroy rural pubs and businesses. Some even say it will strip them of their social life.

For me, something does need to change. Current measures clearly aren’t having a big enough impact on the number of drink driving causalities on our roads. But zero tolerance won’t be the answer.

If zero tolerance was enforced, the same question would remain: how long after having alcohol does it take to get to ‘zero’? And unless prohibition was enforced in the UK, drinking and driving is going to continue to be down to personal responsibility.

So, if you are going to the office Christmas party in the next fortnight and planning to drive the next day, drink a responsible amount and stop drinking early to give your body enough time to rid itself of the alcohol.

Is zero tolerance the answer to our drink driving problem?

Yes (54%, 253 Votes)

No (44%, 205 Votes)

I don't know (2%, 11 Votes)

Total Voters: 469

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Richard Emery says:
14 December 2010

There is no single answer to the very serious issue of drink-driving but zero-tolerance is NOT the answer.

I remember when there was a real change in social attitude. It must be about 25 years ago when a guy in our office, who needed to drive for his work, got caught and got banned. The old attitude of “that’s bad luck” had gone and the new response was “well you were stupid to have driven when you’d been out drinking”.

If we are going to reduce the number of deaths and casualties from drink-driving then we need to recognise where the heart of the problem lies. In 2006 nearly 50% of all breath test failures following injury road accidents where in the age range 17-29 and this included 2,721 young men but only 465 young women. Doesn’t this tell us where we need to focus the campaign?

But we also need to know:

1) What time of day are people caught? Is there really evidence that driving the morning after is a serious problem?

2) What level of alcohol is recorded in drivers who are over the limit? I believe that the real problem is drivers who are substantially over the limit and reducing the limit won’t make any difference to what they do.

3) What level of alcohol is recorded in drivers who are responsible for accidents but who are not over the limit? In other words are people causing accidents by driving around with 60 or 70mg of alcohol in their systems and would a 50mg limit reduce these accidents?

We need to note that France has a 50mg limit but has a substantially higher death rate than the UK. This mustn’t make us complacent, because each death is a tragedy for the family, but it may indicate that simply reducing the limit won’t solve the problem.

Zero-tolerance presents too many difficulties for the public to accept it and without public acceptance it will only result in a deterioration of the relationship between the police and the public. Many drivers have traces of alcohol from the food they eat or from modest drinking many hours earlier.

What we need is greater enforcement and higher penalties. I support the system that they have in Denmark where the fine is a multiple of the amount of alcohol times the driver’s monthly income and the driver must then pay to attend an alcohol and traffic course.


Zero tolerance is the only way ahead that has sufficient strength to narrow the scope of the problem.

It will take time to become accepted – but we’ll get there in the end.

We should vote it into law soon.


First catch your drunk.

If drunk drivers are causing so many deaths then it suggests a lot are not being caught. There’s absolutely no point in lowering the limit if the current one cannot or is not being adequately enforced.


Greater enforcement of the existing rules would be a start – not enough are caught – of any age. But there is no doubt the young tend to be more irresponsible.

I know as a young man I drove a few times after drinking “too much” but – an interesting point – even when I was stopped – it wasn’t because of my bad drunken driving – but because a rear light was broken – and the policeman had nothing to do! I was polite, attentive and mildly happy – so the policeman stated he would not breathalyse me as my driving was fine. Also must add never had an accident after drinking. Now I wouldn’t drink at all.

Sadly I think that zero-tolerance will be the ultimate answer as it seems the young tend to be more irresponsible now.


First I must state my position: I am against drink-driving and would actually favour the Scandanavian zero-tolerance approach. However, I do have a question about the statistics… is there any research to show what proportion of drink-driving accidents are actually due to one or more of the parties having consumed alcohol? I am guessing there is a high correlation, but it may not be 100% (or, I think, r=1 in statistical terms). For example, the Which article has a section headlined:
“One in six deaths on British roads is due to drink-driving”

I suspect the headline would be more accurately written “One in six deaths… involve drivers over the limit”. (The body of the article uses this language).

This may seem rather nerdy, but is bound to be increasingly significant the lower the alcohol in the blood. Simply put, people who are blind-drunk are almost certain to have an accident, but completely sober people also have accidents… so people with traces of alcohol might have an increased risk, but how much?! some clarity on this would no doubt help the debate.

Graham Forecast says:
17 December 2010

My first response to all these statistics is that no evidence is presented that the alcohol had any part to play in the accident. There are plenty of accidents where the driver(s) were not intoxicated. Unless someone can produce some positive evidence that drivers with less than the current alcohol limit are still more liable to cause an accident, I see no reason to reduce it. And no, I have never been convicted of a drink/driving offence and do not drink if I am going to drive.

Maureen says:
17 December 2010

Do those advocating zero tolerance not realise that the Pub trade in this Country is already decimated? Making a profit is near impossible – look at the £billions debts of Punch Taverns. How many more nails in the Local Pub coffins do they want to inflict? No smoking inflicted enough damage.
The current legal limit – if adhered to – is safe. Those who break that limit will ignore the zero tolerance one as well.
The police need to ensure current limit is being observed.
I am a non drinker, so it wont affect me – but I dont want to see another of our Local Pubs, where the men gather for company and relaxation closed for ever.
Look instead at banning late opening hours, and at the pubs, especially in City centres which entice in the young who just want to get as much as they can down their necks. Broad Street in Birmingham is a classic. The Police should be waiting at car parks there with breathalisers.


Lowering the limit is not the answer, althought typical of the modern thought process, ie, if the existing law is not being obeyed, let’s make it even more stringent! Those who drink over the existing limit will drink over any limit and the answer is to catch them, not penalise existing law abiding citizens further. I will only have one pint if I’m driving and the current limit then gives a safe leeway in case there is alchohol in the food or a residue in my body from some time earlier. The current limit needs to be much more rigourously enforced with random breath tests and drug tests, too. Let’s have “zero tolerance” of those who break the existing limit and all over laws as well, for that matter. But if we do not have enough police to catch those exceeding the existing limit, what’s the point of lowering it anyway?