Blitzing Drink and Drug Drivers

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The Law Of... driving under the influence

Earlier this year, police launched a 'blitz' on summertime drink and drug drivers, resulting in some sobering statistics.

Summertime drink and drug drivers get blitzed

Jack Wild, a Road Traffic Collision legal expert with Simpson Millar, examines the recent initiative and discusses the legal consequences for those who put their own lives and the lives of others at risk when driving under the influence.

Summertime Blitz on Drink and Drug Driving

The blitz took place across England, Wales and Northern Ireland between June and July, resulting in 45,000 breath tests and 2,588 screenings for drugs. Of the former, a staggering 4,539 tested positive, refused to provide a sample, or failed, meaning although the test was taken it wasn't enough to ascertain a result.

In the case of the drug tests, 1,028 of the 2,588 drivers screened returned a positive result. A further 279 'field impairment tests' were carried out on those suspected of drug driving, resulting in 80 more arrests.

Drink Driving – The Facts

Under UK law, if you are found guilty of drink driving you could face a fine, a ban or imprisonment; the sentence depending upon the severity of the offence, along with any previous convictions.

The legal limit is as follows:

  • Breath test – 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath (22 in Scotland)
  • Blood test – 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (50 in Scotland)
  • Urine test – 107 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine (67 in Scotland)

In the case of a roadside test, where a breathalyser is used, if the level is 39 micrograms or under, then no further action will be taken. This fractional tolerance is to allow for any over-estimation in the reading. If the breath sample registers between 40 and 50 micrograms, the option is given to offer a blood or urine sample as an alternative. These would be taken at the police station.

Over half a million breath tests are carried out in the UK annually, with 100,000, on average, returning a positive result. As well as the amount of alcohol consumed, there are other factors that can have a bearing on the outcome, including:

  • Age, sex, weight, and metabolism
  • How much food (if any) has been eaten
  • Level of stress

Any one of these might be enough to make the difference between under the limit and over the limit for somebody who considers they've had 'just the one drink'.

When asked in a 2014/15 survey, around 6.2% of drivers admitted to believing they'd driven while over the legal limit at least once in the previous 12 months. Figures for 2014 also showed there were 5,630 reported road accidents in which alcohol impairment was a contributory factor. These were:

  • Slight accidents – 4,530
  • Serious accidents – 880
  • Fatal accidents – 220

Drink Driving – The Penalties

Drink driving is a serious offence and causes upwards of 200 deaths in the UK each year. Those seriously injured due to accidents involving at least one driver over the legal limit number 1,000+ and these figures highlight why the severity of the charge is reflected in the sentencing of those found guilty.

If you are found in charge* of a vehicle while under the influence of drink, you may get:

  • A 3 month prison sentence
  • A driving ban
  • A fine of up to £2,500

*'in charge' can refer to somebody sitting in the driver's seat, whether they are driving or not.

If you are caught driving over the legal limit, you can get:

  • A 6 month prison sentence
  • A driving ban of at least 1 year (increasing to 3 years if convicted more than once in a 10 year period)
  • An unlimited fine

And if you are suspected of being under the influence of drink but refuse to provide a breath, blood or urine sample, guilt is assumed, which can result in the same penalties as those above.

Causing a death as a result of drink driving has much more serious consequences, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, unlimited fines and an obligatory 2 year driving ban all possible.

Offenders convicted of this crime will also have to take an extended driving test before their license is returned to them.

Regardless of the sentence, if penalty points are placed on your license for drink driving they will remain there for 11 years from the date of conviction. Only after this period of time, and assuming no further offences have taken place, will your license revert to a 'clean' status.

Drug Driving – The Facts

Anybody in England or Wales found driving while unfit to do so because of drug intake, is breaking the law. This refers to both legal medications, such as prescription and over-the-counter remedies, and prohibited substances.

Additionally, if you are found to have traces of illegal drugs in your bloodstream above a certain level, even if it doesn't affect your driving in any way, you are again in breach of UK law and liable to be prosecuted if caught.

In 2014, the number of road accidents in which drugs (legal and illegal) were reported to have played a contributory factor totalled 684, this broke down as follows:

  • Slight accidents – 440
  • Serious accidents – 197
  • Fatal accidents – 47

In that same year, 0.9% of drivers – asked anonymously – admitted to having driven while under the influence of illegal drugs, with 23% of those divulging it was something they did once or twice a week, or in some cases more frequently.

There are two roadside methods by which police can assess whether somebody is driving under the influence of drugs. These are the 'field impairment' test and a saliva test, also known as the Drugalyser.

The former is a series of aptitude evaluations such as finger to nose, one legged standing and walking in a straight line, as well as pupil measurement, while the latter, introduced in March 2015, is more in line with the traditional breathalyser for drink driving and can detect a number of both legal and illegal drugs from a simple oral swab.

These include:

  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Methadone
  • Benzodiazepines

As with drink driving, there are threshold limits for the levels of drugs that can be found in your bloodstream before you are prosecuted for drug driving. These differ per drug, but there is generally a higher tolerance for legal substances than there is for illegal ones.

Drug Driving – The Penalties

In the event you are convicted of driving while under the influence of drugs, you will find yourself facing:

  • Up to 6 months behind bars
  • A minimum 1 year driving ban
  • An unlimited fine

You will also get a criminal record, along with an endorsement on your license, which, as with drink driving, lasts for 11 years.

Causing another person's death as a result of drug driving carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

These penalties apply to England and Wales only.

Raising Road Safety Awareness

Commenting on the summertime blitz on drink and drug drivers, Jack Wild says:

"We have seen from the statistics that drugs and particularly drink are the root cause of many avoidable road traffic accidents. These range from minor bumps to full on fatalities, causing devastation for the loved ones of those involved."

"People need to remember there is no 'safe' amount when it comes to drinking and driving and to avoid falling foul of the law, the best option is never to mix the two. The same goes if you've consumed a quantity of alcohol the night before. Even if you feel okay, you might still be over the limit in the morning and you are risking disqualification if you choose to drive and get pulled over."

"As can be seen from the numbers in the report regarding the amount of drivers testing positive for drink and drugs, there is still a lot of work to be done in changing attitudes towards road safety. Many of those pulled over could well have had one or two drinks and thought they were okay to drive, but alcohol – and also drugs – affects different people in different ways and although you think you're fine, you have in fact tipped yourself over the limit, which, in the eyes of the law, is what counts."

"It's this sort of behaviour that needs to change if we are to make our roads safer for all its users. That's why raising awareness of road safety is so important and also why we at Simpson Millar are supporting the charity Brake. Its work in increasing awareness of road safety issues is second to none and to help ensure it can continue doing so, we will be taking part in a fundraising abseil at the Trafford Centre in Manchester."

"With the charity's next Road Safety Awareness Week on the horizon, we hope our efforts will play a small part in making it as successful as the previous ones."

Drink/Drug Driving: The Facts - Simpson Millar LLP Infographic


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