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Policy in detail: Drink drive limit

We are progressing plans to bring in a lower drink drive limit in Scotland.

It is estimated that just over one in every nine deaths on Scotland’s roads each year involve drivers who are over the legal drink driving limit. This equates to around 30 deaths every year.

We consulted on proposals to lower the drink drive limit in 2012. Almost three quarters (74 per cent) of respondents were in favour of a lower drink drive limit.

The current drink driving limits are:

  • 80 mg of alcohol in every 100ml of blood
  • 35 mcg of alcohol in every 100 ml of breath
  • 107 mg of alcohol in every 100 ml of urine

We are proposing:

  • a reduction in the blood limit from 80 mg of alcohol in every 100 ml of blood to 50 mg of alcohol in every 100 ml of blood
  • an (equivalent) reduction in the breath limit from 35 mcg of alcohol in 100 ml of breath to 22 mcg of alcohol in every 100 ml of breath
  • an (equivalent) reduction in the urine limit from 107 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of urine to 67 mg of alcohol in every 100 ml of urine


Why do you want to reduce the drink driving limit?

Evidence shows you are 6 times more likely to die with a blood alcohol concentration between 50 and 80 mg/100ml than with zero blood alcohol. Although any level of alcohol can impair driving and people can react differently to alcohol, this evidence shows that it is at around the 50mg/100ml level when impairment in driving manifests itself through a much increased likelihood of being involved in accidents. This is easy to understand given other evidence shows that it is at around the 50mg/100ml level that, amongst other elements of impairment, a driver’s vision potentially starts being affected.

Evidence submitted in 2010 by the British Medical Association to the House of Commons Transport Committee's inquiry into drink and drug driving law indicated that the relative risk of being involved in a road traffic crash for drivers with a reading of 80mg alcohol/100ml of blood was 10 times higher than for drivers with a zero blood alcohol reading. The relative crash risk for drivers with a reading of 50mg alcohol/100ml blood was twice the level than for drivers with a zero blood alcohol reading.

A new lower limit of 50 mg/100ml will allow the police, prosecutors and our courts to take more drivers off the road who pose a risk to public safety. It should also act as a deterrent in encouraging people not to drink and drive at all.

Why is the new limit not going to be zero?

Alcohol at any level impairs driving. So “don’t drink and drive” is the right message.

However, we think reducing the limit to a lower level of 50mg/100ml is the right approach to ensure action can be taken against more drivers who have drunk alcohol which is impairing their driving.

A zero limit or near zero limit would bring some difficulties as people’s response to alcohol varies depending on a range of matters including age, gender, weight, time of day, the time taken to consume alcohol and whether they have eaten. We would want to avoid criminalising drivers who may have the remnants of alcohol in their system even though it is quite some time since they had a drink and very little alcohol actually remains in their system.

We already have relatively few deaths each year from drink driving so why is a lower limit needed?

Just over 1 in 9 deaths on Scotland’s roads each year involve drivers over the legal limit. That is 30 deaths each year, 30 families devastated by the loss of a loved one.

We owe it to the people of Scotland to consider what proportionate action we can take to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads and that is why a lower limit can be part of the action necessary to reduce these numbers of deaths.

Under a reduced limit, how much can someone drink before they are over the limit?

Alcohol at any level impairs driving so “don’t drink and drive” has been and remains the right message to send to people.

Sir Peter North CBE QC considered this issue as part of his independent review that recommended reducing the limit to 50mg/100 ml blood. He indicated that:

‘… nobody will be breaching a 50mg/100ml limit after one pint of standard strength beer, one small glass of standard strength wine or one standard strength short measure of spirits.’

However, the message remains that it is very difficult to accurately estimate the effect of alcohol on your system, alcohol at any level can impair driving and therefore the right message must be don’t drink and drive at all.

Why are sensible drinkers being penalised when the estimates of how many lives will be saved vary greatly?

It is true to say that the estimates of lives to be saved from a lower limit can vary as they are often made on different bases for different countries.

However, the North Report looked at what a lower limit might mean and from using his UK wide figures, we can estimate that between 3 and 17 Scottish lives each year might be saved through a lower limit.

Why not introduce a lower limit for young and/or newly qualified drivers? Why not introduce a lower limit for professional drivers? Will you change the penalties for drink driving? Will you allow the police to breath test anytime, anywhere?

These are all proposals with some merit and we would have liked to have sought views on them with a view to considering action, but unfortunately the UK Government rejected our request to devolve these powers within the Scotland Act 2012. All we are empowered to do is alter the limit itself so action in these areas is for the UK Government to consider.

What about the impact of a lower limit on pubs, especially in rural areas where there are fewer public transport options?

The consequences of a drink driving accident on a quiet rural road can be as severe as on busy urban roads. It is right that a national lower drink driving limit is in place with the right message being for all of Scotland – don’t drink and drive.

Will you be planning any publicity campaigns if a lower limit is introduced ?

If following the consultation we decide to proceed to lower the limit, we are considering a public information campaign to accompany the introduction of a lower limit. We have engaged with the police and will explore further options to work with other justice and road safety partners to look at ways to highlighting a reduced drink drive limit in Scotland.