August 8, 2017

When Did Drink Driving Become Illegal in the UK?

Follow our interactive timeline through the history of drink driving and road safety.
When Did Drink Driving Become Illegal in the UK? Header Image

A History of Drink Driving Laws in the UK

Drink driving became illegal in the UK in 1967. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Road Safety Bill that introduced a legal alcohol limit for UK drivers. In celebration of our government’s attempts to make our roads safer we thought we’d put together a run-down of the important changes and laws that were put in place to make our roads safer over the years.

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Road Traffic Act

In 1960 it became an offence to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place while "unfit to drive through drink or drugs".


The "Marples" Act

In 1962 it became an offence for any person to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle if their "ability to drive properly was for the time being impaired". No legal drink driving limit was set until 1967.

The possibility of using blood, urine or breath for alcohol analysis was approached in the Road Traffic Act of 1962 (aka The Marples Act), it was not considered to be an offence to fail/refuse to supply a breath, blood or urine specimen. However, failing to do so without reasonable cause could "be treated as supporting any evidence given on behalf of the prosecution, or as rebutting any evidence given on behalf of the defence".

Before this act was introduced successful drink driving prosecutions relied heavily upon the subjective tests and observations of so called 'police surgeons' and other evidence such as witness statements alongside any statements made by the accused.


Road Safety Bill announced

In January 1966 the new Road Safety Bill was announced to come into force the following year. It set a limit of 80mg of alcohol in 100cc of blood and it became an offence to drive when over this limit.


Breathalyser introduced

Along with the Bill putting a limit on alcohol levels, the breathalyser was introduced as a way of testing blood alcohol level.


In 1967, William Ducie and Tom Parry Jones developed and marketed the first electronic breathalyser. The Road Safety Act 1967 introduced the first legally enforceable maximum blood alcohol level for drivers in the UK and introduced the roadside breathalyser, made available to police forces across the country.


Transport Act introduces evidential breath testing

The 1981 Transport Act introduced evidential breath testing and stated that 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath was to be the maximum legal breath alcohol limit.

Due to various tests and trials that were, at the time, being carried out on evidential breath testing machines and the need for the manufacturers to produce large quantities for wide scale distribution, the Act was not actually established and implemented until 1983.

The police also needed to train its officers in the correct use of evidential breath testing machines in order to ensure correct procedure was always followed.


High Risk Offenders Scheme launched

First introduced in 1983, the High Risk Offenders Scheme is specifically aimed at convicted drink-drivers who may have a drinking problem. After their disqualification, high risk offenders' licences are returned only if they can convince a court that they do not have a drink problem.

In order to do this, they must pass a medical examination by the DVLA. If there is evidence of persistent misuse within the past 6 months, then a licence is refused.

High Risk Offenders are drivers who:

  • Have been found to be over 2½ times the legal limit
  • Have 2 convictions for being either unfit to drive because of drink or for exceeding the legal limit within a 10-year period, or;
  • Have been disqualified from driving for refusing to provide a sample for testing

How alcohol affects driving

Many of the functions that we depend on to drive safely are affected when we drink alcohol:

  • The brain takes longer to receive messages from the eye
  • Processing information becomes more difficult
  • Instructions to the body's muscles are delayed resulting in slower reaction times

Drinkers can also experience blurred and double vision, which affects their ability to see things clearly while driving. Drinkers are more likely to take potentially dangerous risks because of their lack of inhibitions.


New Criminal offence introduced

The Road Traffic Act of 1991 introduced a new offence of 'Causing death by driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs' which carried a compulsory prison sentence of up to five years.


Drink Driving rehabilitation courses introduced

Section 30 of the Road Traffic Act 1991 introduced a provision for sentencing courts to refer those who are disqualified for drink driving offences to approved drink driving rehabilitation courses. Completing the drink driving rehabilitation course can reduce any disqualification period by up to 25% and can help reduce car insurance premiums for convicted drivers.


Campaign Against Drink Driving formed

In 1995 the Campaign Against Drink Driving (CADD) was formed by relatives of drink-driver victims. It continues to highlight the issue of drink driving to the public and government.


Serious drink drive offenders must sit an extended re-test

As of 2002, drivers convicted of causing death by driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs are required to pass an extended test before being allowed to drive again.

In 2002 doctors were also given the right to take blood samples from unconscious or incapacitated drivers without their consent. Even though a blood sample can be taken while a driver is incapacitated or unconscious, once the driver regains consciousness, he must give consent for that sample to be analysed. Failure to allow a specimen to be subjected to a laboratory test when 'driving or attempting to drive' is a criminal offence.


Scotland reduces drink drive limit to 50mg

A Scottish Statutory Instrument entitled The Road Traffic Act 1988 (Prescribed Limit) (Scotland) Regulations 2014 introduced changes to the maximum prescribed legal alcohol limit in relation to driving or attempting to drive and being in charge of a vehicle in Scotland.

The Statutory Instrument lowered the maximum legal alcohol limit in Scotland from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

As of 5th December 2014 when the changes came into force the new maximum legal prescribed alcohol limit in Scotland became:

  • 22 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath; or
  • 50 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood; or
  • 67 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of urine.

Over 60k drivers fail breathalyzer test

In 2015, 520,219 roadside breath tests were carried out by the police, of which 60,019 drivers or riders (12% of those tested) failed or refused to take the test.


50 years since the alcohol limit is introduced

Provisional figures from the Department for Transport suggest that 1,380 people were killed or seriously injured in collisions where at least one driver was over the limit – an increase of five per cent. There has also been a three per cent increase in drink drive casualties of all severities, with an estimate of 8,480.

The introduction of the drink drive limit has dramatically reduced the number of accidents caused by being drunk when driving. Yet despite 50 years of drink drive education and enforcement, over 70,000 people are still caught drink driving annually.