HC Deb 17 November 1987 vol 122 cc917-9 3.31 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I beg to move—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly, please—or remain for the ten-minute Bill?

Mr. Boyes

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1972 to provide for additional powers for the police to carry out random breath tests at the road side. The Bill is a response to the great public concern about the effects of drinking and driving, the widespread confusion about the current law and the fact that it is no longer serving as a deterrent. The Bill provides the Home Secretary with enabling powers to introduce a random breath-testing procedure, a proven road accident counter measure, to supplement the current powers. Random breath tests are defined as breath tests which are administered by a constable in uniform to a randomly selected sample of drivers at a roadside checkpoint.

Can the House accept that today three people will die on the road as a result of drinking and driving—and tomorrow and the next day? Can we continue to accept the frequency of alcohol-related collisions which comprise 10 per cent. of all personal injury accidents? Are we going to allow a repetition of last year, where such accidents produced nearly 20,000 casualties, 50 per cent. of whom had not been drinking or driving themselves? We hear much about civil liberties, but should we not be protecting the civil liberties of those innocent victims?

The social cost is enormous. In purely financial terms it is estimated at £400 million a year. In human terms, the pain and grief to families who have suffered a loss is incalculable. A newsletter from the Campaign Against Drink Driving brings home the true cost of those tragedies when it says: Just when we begin to think the future is bearable, a voice, someone in the street, a garment or an anniversary will suddenly reopen the wounds and we bleed inwardly again as we did in those first months. In Britain, deaths arising from drinking and driving are three times as frequent as deaths arising from other kinds of violence, such as homicide or acts of terrorism. Traffic regulation enforcement is given very low priority, comprising only 8 per cent. of police effort nationally. Mr. Ted Griffiths, assistant chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, provided a recent conference with some illuminating comparisons. He estimated that, in 1985, the average number of breath tests given per police officer nationally was two, compared with 70 for Nottinghamshire and 123 for New South Wales, Australia, which takes its drink-driving policy very seriously.

Since 1967, when the breathalyser was introduced, the number of excess alcohol offences has quadrupled. In 1986, there were 100,000 positive breath tests, comprising one third of all those tested. The majority of police time, however, is engaged in the apprehension of offenders rather than in deterrence. A large discrepancy has been found in regard to the actual chances of being detected, ranging from one in 250 in some areas to one in 4,000 in others.

The Bill aims to redress the balance, and to resurrect "deterrent policing", in the interests of road safety.

Publicity campaigns have formed a major component of the Government's attack on drink-driving. However, it has been shown in other countries that publicity itself does not effectively change the public attitude. Publicity must be used as a reinforcement of the highly visible random breath testing to achieve its maximum impact.

Similarly, overseas practice, particularly in Scandinavian countries, has shown that severe penalties on their own also fail to deter the drinking driver. A recent review by Dr. Dunbar concluded that, while those countries had reached the ceiling of severity in their penalties for excess alcohol offences, they still had not controlled the drinking driver. All the evidence is that a highly visible police presence at the roadside is essential if drivers' perception of the chance of being detected is to increase significantly.

I believe that progress is being inhibited not merely by resources and priorities, but by the nature of our current legislation and the public's perception of it. As Dr. Murray Mackay, head of the accident research unit and vice-chairman of PACTS, wrote in a letter to The Times on 5 August: The present position in Britain is both absurd and invidious for the police. The number of tests administered annually is extremely low; this year I driver out of 80 will be tested. So everyone has the correct perception that to drive with an elevated alcohol level carries little risk of being caught. Yet the British police, to test for alcohol, must go through the charade of picking on a driver for some technical offence. This immediately creates an adversarial relationship between police and public. There are a number of problems associated with the current legislation. First, the understandable caution exercised by police officers in needing reasonable cause for suspicion before administering a breath test means that many offenders will be undetected. That was recognised by the Blennerhassett committee in 1976, when it recommen-ded unfettered police discretion. Secondly, surveys show that drivers do not expect to be detected for excess alcohol offences, because they do not expect to be involved in an accident. They think that they can drive well enough to avoid committing a moving traffic offence, thus avoiding suspicion by the police.

Another problem with the present law is that the passing motorist is not able to determine the reason for which any fellow driver has been stopped, which fails to provide a sufficiently high-profile deterrent.

The Bill will not allow the police to single out any one individual and give him a breath test. It will not give them the unfettered powers recommended by Blennerhassett. It will allow them to set up roadside checkpoints and select samples of drivers for testing, say 10 at a time.

The point about random breath testing is that it creates a high-visibility roadside deterrent. As Friends of the Earth have said, it affects all drivers equally and means that the business man in his suit is as likely to be tested as the young man in a Ford Cortina. The type of random breath testing that I have described has been introduced in many countries, including the United States, Australia and Finland. In all cases, it has provided an effective dererrent to the drinking driver by virtue of its high visibility, and, in practice, it meets with a high degree of public acceptability. In Finland, random breath testing contributed to a 50 per cent. reduction in road accidents. Introduced in New South Wales, Australia, in December 1982, two years after the legal blood alcohol limit was reduced from 80 to 50 mg per ml, it produced a decrease of more than 20 per cent. in all road accident deaths. Michael Knight, Member of Parliament, the former chairman of the New South Wales Parliament's joint standing committee on road safety, has stated that random breath testing is the single most effective tool in the struggle to reduce the road toll in the history of New South Wales.

With one hour per traffic patrol shift spend on random breath testing, the New South Wales driver is screened on average about once a year. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory has estimated that it would cost £20 million to achieve police and publicity levels similar to those in New South Wales. With savings of £400 million —20 times the cost of the implementation—this measure is entirely cost-effective. It is a sound investment.

Surveys conducted over the past 10 years have shown a hardening of public attitudes to the drinking driver. Despite police fears that random breath-testing might lead to poor police-public relations, public opinion surveys carried out this year all show more than 70 per cent. support for the measure. In addition, there is all-party support for the Bill.

A wide range of organisations support the introduction of random breath testing. They include the Association of Police Surgeons, the British Medical Association, the Guild of Experienced Motorists and many other organisations too numerous to mention.

There is also growing support within the media. Scottish Television and the Today newspaper have both joined the campaign against the drinking driver. It would appear that the time for random breath testing has come.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roland Boyes, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Ray Powell, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. David Knox, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. John Cartwright, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Sir Bernard Braine, Mr. A. J. Beith, and Mr. Brian Sedgemore.