HL Deb 11 December 1989 vol 513 cc1119-22

2.38 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further proposals they have to deal with drink-driving.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we launched the pre-Christmas phase of our "Drinking and Driving Wrecks Lives" campaign on 6th December. This has the warm support of police, voluntary organisations and the drinks industry. It forms part of our year-round programme of events and measures to strengthen the trend against drinking and driving and to cut the quite unacceptable deaths and injuries that it causes.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the greatest deterrent to drink-driving is the fear of getting caught? In those circumstances, does he agree that the only measure which will substantially reduce the appalling number of deaths caused by drink-driving —there are 1,000 per year—is the institution of random breath testing at roadside checkpoints? In view of the outstanding success that this has had in a number of other countries, why are not the Government adopting it or at least looking at it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, calls for random breath testing reflect the welcome hardening of society's attitude towards the drinking driver. The police have asked for unfettered discretion to administer tests and a recent consultation exercise showed wide support for a change in the law. The Home Secretary is now considering how best to take that forward.

Lord Strathcarron

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that of the 5,000 fatal road deaths per year only one-quarter are drink related and of those, one-third are drunken pedestrians? Does he further agree that more accidents are caused by people who cannot see properly than by drink-driving? I should like to know what the Government intend to do about that.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I confirm that drinking and driving resulted in approximately 900 deaths last year. It is the biggest single cause of road accident casualties. My noble friend has put forward an interesting hypothesis which I shall bear in mind.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, has the Minister seen a report that the current flu virus has a much worse effect on one's driving than does drink? Will the Minister introduce a test to discover whether people have flu?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am afraid that I have not seen that report.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are too easy with people who drink and drive and who are potential killers? Is it not a fact that people who drink and drive, who are breath tested and who then have further blood or urine tests, may well be allowed to continue to drive on the roads for weeks and months after detection because of the time taken to bring them to court? Have we not reached the stage when someone caught with excess alcohol in his blood should be banned from driving on the spot?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Government welcome the recent announcement by the Magistrates' Association that it intends to produce revised guidelines on sentencing road traffic offenders. Of course, it is for the courts alone to decide on the appropriate sentence within the maximum penalities set by Parliament.

On the last point raised by the noble Lord, when somebody is apprehended and breath tested and it is still alleged that he is driving having consumed drink, it is for the court to prove that he has done so.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there is a certain injustice about the present testing for drink-driving because it appears that people can absorb different amounts of alcohol at different rates and thus register at different levels? For example, women register, having absorbed less alcohol. Does not the Minister agree that one way in which to deal with this matter would be to test whether or not people are really drunk and that that would be the best solution?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the present limit is the level at which, for most drivers, the chance of being involved in an accident starts to rise sharply. Therefore, I believe that priority must continue to be given to enforcing the present limit.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in order to get matters into proportion, does the noble Viscount agree that Britain has one of the lowest road fatality rates in the entire world, lower indeed than 50 years ago despite there being almost 20 times as many vehicles on the roads? Secondly, does he agree that even if every accident said to be drink related was actually caused by drink, which is certainly not the case, it still remains true that at least 82 per cent. of accidents are caused by sober drivers—over-tired, impatient or careless but, nevertheless, sober drivers? Let us not emulate the Ayatollahs.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we should all be grateful that there are so many sober drivers on the roads. However, I believe it is unwise not to pursue those who drive and drink and unwise not to try to discourage them. That is what the campaign launched on 6th December is intended to do.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is it not a fact that in a press notice issued by the Department of Transport as recently as 6th November, it was clearly stated that there are no less than 120,000 drink-driving convictions each year? As he referred to investigations made by the Home Secretary, will the Home Secretary also take a very careful look, if random breath testing is to be introduced (which I support), to ensure that there will be very sound guidelines for the police to follow, that there will be reporting of the progress of random breath testing and monitoring so that a fuller report can be given?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Lord may be interested to know that there were 440,000 roadside breath tests in 1988 —11 per cent. more than in 1987. The Home Secretary will take into account all the noble Lord's suggestions when considering what to do next about random breath testing.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, in enforcing the present law, such as my noble friend emphasised, does he not agree that there are already three specific provisions within the road traffic Acts which allow police to stop suspect motorists? Do not the execution of those powers provide an adequacy of enforcement?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. A police officer may stop a motorist and ask for a breath test to be carried out following an accident and following a moving traffic offence. It is also lawful for a police officer to slop any car if he suspects that the driver may have been drinking.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say how many pedestrians under the influence of drink are killed by motor cars because they are walking about drunk? Should not the Government give a warning to people at Christmas-time that they should not wander around drunk and be a hazard to drivers?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the figures for which the noble Lord is asking. However, I believe that his words of wisdom, especially at this time of the year, are very apt.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the great strengths of my suggestion of a breath test made at a roadside checkpoint is its fairness? There is no question of bias, harassment or anything of that nature associated with it. Will the Government take into consideration the fact —and I think the Minister might have mentioned this —that a road transport users' opinion poll revealed that 81 per cent. of people now support the kind of breath test which is being proposed?

Viscount Ullswater

Yes, my Lords, the Government will take into consideration everything which the noble Lord has said. I should also mention that there are roadside surveys carried out every year by the road research laboratory although it does not have the force of the police.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, before we go overboard in favour of random testing, would it not be a more effective use of manpower to monitor careless driving which is a moving traffic offence? Would that not be more liable to catch the drunken or drinking driver than a random test on the principle that the aimed shot is slightly more effective than shooting into the ground?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble and learned friend has made an extremely valuable point. Of course, the police investigate cases of careless driving and one of the measures which they are obliged to take when they find an accident is to give the drivers involved a breath test.