HL Deb 22 January 1990 vol 514 cc874-7

2.59 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the numbers of deaths and serious injuries respectively attributable to drink-driving over the recent Christmas and new year holiday period.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, accidents resulting in death and injury over the period totalled 5,715 an increase of 11 per cent. over the previous year. The extent to which alcohol and other factors played a part in the accidents, and the casualties resulting from them, is not known.

While the number of breath tests was 30 per cent. higher than over the previous Christmas, the proportion of drivers found to be over the limit fell from 10 per cent. to 8.5 per cent.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, in view of that deeply disturbing Answer, which demonstrates to me at least the inadequacy of the present legislation, does not the Minister think that the time has arrived for a new approach to the problem? Will the Government now introduce static testing; that is, where the police are authorised to stop, say, one in 10 vehicles —a predetermined number which can be agreed —to carry out breath testing? In considering this matter will the Minister look at the remarkable success of that procedure in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and America? When is this slaughter of 1,000 people killed annually by drunken drivers to stop?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I thought the figures I gave were encouraging. While 30 per cent. more tests were carried out than in 1988, the proportion of drivers failing the breath test fell from 10 per cent. to 8.5 per cent.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will announce shortly the Government's response to the police request for wider powers to stop and breath-test drivers. Clarification of the law by the Attorney-General last month confirmed that the present powers are extensive. The Christmas campaign has shown that they were widely used. It is lawful for the police to stop vehicles at random for the purpose of investigating whether the driver has alcohol in his body. We urge the police to make the fullest possible use of those powers.

Lord Strathcarron

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that of the fatal accidents only one-quarter are drink related and one-third of those are drunken pedestrians? Does my noble friend agree that more people are killed or injured on the road through defective vision than through drink-driving? Eyesight should be taken more seriously, but because it is respectable to have faulty eyesight and not respectable to have one drink too many, Her Majesty's Government do not appear to be doing anything about it.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not wish to enter into this particular debate, but your Lordships will be interested to hear that an on-going programme of research is being carried out by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. Trial surveys took place last year in Wiltshire and the previous year in Warwickshire and Sussex and a survey is to go ahead on a national basis later this year. This research project will tell us more about the extent of the drink drive problem and will assist in monitoring the success of our efforts to tackle it.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the Minister certain that he is justified in the encouragement he draws from the figures for Christmas? If the percentage being tested has gone up, one would expect a percentage of those found to be drunk to go down, because presumably previously the police tested the people who were obviously tipsy. They are now testing some who are less obviously tipsy. Among those you would expect to have a higher proportion who were not drunk. Is that not correct?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, my mathematics do not quite come up to scratch to answer the noble Baroness. I shall have to go home and do some homework. I will see if she is right, and if so I will write to her.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, presumably the figures given by my noble friend cover Scotland since the Question on the Order Paper is not limited to England and Wales. Have the Government formulated any views on the situation in Scotland, because press reports indicate that breath test results there have been disappointingly worse this year?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not have the figures for Scotland. I will have to write to my noble friend.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that no matter what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, says, the figures for Christmas drinking and driving are quite appalling? Does he agree that one of the reasons why the figures are so appalling is the enormous cost of non-alcoholic and soft drinks, which often cost more than alcoholic drinks, which have duty upon them? Is it not possible for the Government to prevail upon the brewers and others to sell soft drinks and non-alcoholic drinks at considerably reduced prices?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on getting in that question, but I think it is a long way away from the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, has my noble friend any further information on the total figure for serious accidents given in the first sentence of his original Answer? Can he show what relation, compared with previous years, those serious accidents bear to the number of vehicles registered on the road?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the figure I gave was for the Christmas period this year. I do not think figures are yet available to break that down.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will the noble Viscount agree that at least 82 per cent. of the deaths and injuries on our roads are caused by sober drivers, about one in 10 of whom, incidentally, are under the influence of drugs, mainly medicinal drugs? Is it not time, therefore, to abandon the notion that drink is the sole cause or even the main cause of road accidents and to concentrate more on the bad driving habits of the 82 per cent.?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I cannot agree with that. Everybody is aware that drinking and driving causes many unnecessary accidents. I can tell the House that a campaign has been developed with the support of police and local authority road safety officers. Other bodies also involved are the Department of Health, health education authorities, Alcohol Concern, the Brewers Society, AA —both AAs, I suppose —and many others. Work will continue to draw in as wide a range of interested organisations as possible and we intend to continue with it.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, will the Minister agree that, important as alcohol is in causing accidents, the general standard of driving in this country is much too low? Unless it is improved, alcohol will only make it worse.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I have to agree with my noble friend. The standard of driving is far worse than it used to be. Whether or not that is due to the increased number of people driving, I do not know.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, following the question of my noble friend Lord Strathcarron, can the Minister say whether the police, when they apprehend people for drunken driving of motor vehicles at any time of day or night, also test eyesight or have reason to ask the drivers to have their eyesight tested? Many of us on this side of the House —and I think the whole House —know that defective eyesight is a cause of accidents.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I shall certainly inform my right honourable friend at the Home Office of what the noble Baroness has said.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the form of random testing which I suggested be considered is supported by the National Council for Civil Liberties, the British Medical Association and by opinion polls? Does he therefore appreciate that the fear, which I understand, of people being harassed and bias being applied in some cases is quite simply unfounded?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, as I have already said, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will announce the Government's response to the police request for wider powers to stop and breath-test drivers. I cannot go further than that today.