HL Deb 22 March 1984 vol 449 cc1363-5
Viscount Mersey

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many road accident deaths in 1983 involved drivers who had consumed more than the legal limit of alcohol.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, data on the blood alcohol level of road accident fatalities are obtained from procurators fiscal and most coroners. Estimates indicate that about 185 motor cycle riders and 415 other motor vehicle drivers killed in 1983 were over the legal limit. Three hundred and ten other accidents in which a rider or a driver not fatally injured failed an initial breath test or failed to provide a required sample caused around 340 other fatalities.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that full reply. I hope he would agree with me that 600 deaths is 600 too many, and I wonder whether he might consider adopting some tougher penalty system such as in Norway, where they simply have a mandatory three weeks in prison for offenders.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the current penalties for attempting to drive when unfit to drive through drink or drugs have a maximum of six months imprisonment and/or a £1,000 fine and an obligatory disqualification for a minimum of one year, or three years if a second offence is committed within 10 years of a previous offence, and it is generally thought that that is an adequate level.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that our prisons are quite full enough as they are, and that, if there must be some custodial care, that perhaps it might be at attendance centres at weekends?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend to her comments.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, although I share the general concern of the Minister at drink and driving offences, may I ask whether he would agree that there must be public confidence in the breath measuring instruments? In the light of disclosures in one national newspaper, do the Government propose to make any statement about them in order to restore public confidence? Is this not the opportunity to reconsider the Government's attitude on the alternative option of blood or urine?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, while I recognise the noble Lord's concern in these matters, I think he would probably agree that his question is perhaps a little wide of the original one on the Order Paper.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend is able to give similarly illuminating information about pedestrians who are involved in road accidents where death occurs and are found to be inebriated?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, there has not been a sustained research programme on pedestrians, but that which has been undertaken over recent years suggests that pedestrians with an element of alcohol in their blood over the excess limit as prescribed by law contribute not insignificantly to some fatal road accidents.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a body of medical opinion which believes that a great number of road accidents are caused by people driving under the influence of legally prescribed drugs, particularly tranquillisers, which of course are being taken by several million people in this country at any given moment, and also anti-histamines and so on, none of which is detectable by any known breathaliser? Can the noble Lord say how seriously his department regards these assertions?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, in the event of an alleged offender coming before the court, it would be for the court to decide whether such a claim has any germane effect upon the offence for which he has been apprehended.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind the increasing public concern that diplomats are able to refuse testing for alcohol levels? Can he say how far the Government have got in their efforts to reach international agreement to close this disgusting loophole?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Elton answered this question some months ago. Where a diplomat claiming immunity is alleged to be guilty of this offence or where in fact he takes a test which is found to be over the limit, the mission is advised and it is left for the mission to take what steps it feels desirable. I can tell the noble Lord that in the past 18 months nine members of overseas missions have, in fact, left the missions as a result of representations made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the heads of those missions.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider, when it comes to the question of legalising any drugs at all, not merely whether those drugs are in themselves harmful, but whether they are not extremely dangerous if they are used by anybody who then has to do anything as complicated as driving a car?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am quite sure the noble Viscount is correct in that; nevertheless perhaps it would be helpful if I reminded your Lordships that in 1982, of 57,000 convictions for excess levels of alcohol in blood, over 31,000 had an excess over 150 milligrammes per millilitre, which is something like one and a half times the minimum limit. This is a very serious position.