On this day 1965…drink drive limit announced

On this day in 1965 the UK government announced its intention to introduce a drink drive limit in order to improve road safety.

Barbara Castle watching a police officer try the new breathalyser kit, 1967.

By the mid 1960s the number of cars in Great Britain was rising drastically, with some five million cars on the road but also an estimated 2,000 deaths a year and countless other accidents attributed drink driving. Although laws were in place making it illegal to be drunk in charge of a vehicle, there was no legal definition of what constituted too much.

The very first act punishing intoxication while in charge of a vehicle had been in 1872, when a fine of up to 40 shillings or, in the most serious cases, one month’s imprisonment without hard labour, could be imposed for anyone caught drunk while in charge of carriages, horses, cattle and steam engines.

From 1925 a law was passed making it illegal to be found drunk while in charge of a motor vehicle with an increased fine and prison sentences. In 1930 this was expanded to drugs as well and various other Road Traffic Acts in the early 1960s had sought to make it an offence to also “attempt” to drive while under the influence of drink or drugs. Still, however, there was no legal definition of what constituted an unsafe level.

There had been a pamphlet campaign, introduced in 1954, entitled ‘Less Drink than you Think’ that aimed to make drivers think about their consumption before driving but it was limited in its scope and its impact was limited.

As a result, on 18 June 1965 the transport minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government, Barbara Castle, announced proposals for increased road safety, targeting drink driving in particular, which were to be introduced in the new Road Safety Act of 1967.

She said: “Unless the rise is checked, we could have something like a million casualties a year by 1980.”

Initially, quite what that limit was supposed to be was rather unclear. At least one proposal was as high as a 1.5% blood-alcohol level which would allow the average man to consume (if he were able) eight pints of beer or 12 single Scotches and still get behind the wheel of a car.

Castle herself even suggested six pints of beer or six whiskies might be doable, though this proposal was quickly shelved, presumably, Lord Nugent of Guildford is recorded as saying: “I can only suppose that she has tried the six large whiskies, which would seem to be a pretty stiff dose.”

In the event, the bill of 1967 set a limit of 80mg per 100cc of blood. To help enforce the new law, the breathalyser test was introduced at the same time.

The new law did very swiftly have an impact on peoples’ drinking habits, with many who drove to and from work often choosing to limit or cut out completely lunchtime drinking which had been comparatively common before then.

With takings down as many members of the public began to forego their lunchtime pints, publicans actually marched on Westminster in an effort to have the law repealed. Unsuccessfully as it turned out.

The effect of road deaths has also been far-reaching. Since official records began in 1979, the number of deaths on UK roads has dropped 85%.

According to Drinkaware, between 2010 and 2015 there were 36,300 reported drink drive accidents in the UK and 1,410 deaths caused by drink driving – an average of 282 deaths a year over that five year period – still a high tally but a marked improvement on 2,000 deaths a year.

Despite the implementation of a drink drive limit in 1966, it was another 16 years before the wearing of a seatbelt became mandatory.

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