Andrew Vine: Some sobering facts on drink driving

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THE traffic was backing up on a main road heading north from Leeds city centre almost as badly as during rush hour, even though it was after 11pm. Flashing blue lights up ahead told the story of why the road was gridlocked. Sure enough, a two-car smash at a junction, broken glass all over the road and quite possibly a shattered life in the ambulance speeding away.

It’s a familiar sight, and at this time of year, depressingly possible that drink-driving played a part in the crash. Office parties, a missed last bus, not having enough money for a taxi, then a potentially fatal decision skewed by drink to chance the drive home.

Last year, 280 people across the country were killed in road accidents in which drink driving played a part. Disturbing though that figure is, it does not tell the whole story.

Behind it are the loved ones consumed by grief, the spouses, partners, children and parents. Their lives changed for the worse in an instant too, and we can only guess at the heartache that headline figure represents.

Nor does it tell us how many people have been left disabled or disfigured as a result of those crashes, perhaps to the extent that lives have been irrevocably damaged or livelihoods lost.

Drink driving remains a menace, even though 50 years of campaigning against it have wrought profound changes in social attitudes and brought the numbers whose lives are blighted or destroyed relentlessly downwards.

Thirty-five years ago, 1,640 people died in road accidents in which drink was a factor so the twin-track approach of hard-hitting advertising warning people off, and relentless enforcement by police, 
has been a major success.

Anybody who remembers visiting pubs around that time, in the 1970s and 80s, will recall how common it was for their car parks to be full. At 10.30pm closing time drivers who had spent all evening boozing set off into the night.

The consequences could be horrible. Two close relatives of mine were long-serving police officers, and it felt like a feature of every Christmas that one or the other would return from a shift grim-faced after dealing with a drink-fuelled crash, or having to break appalling news in somebody’s lounge amid the decorations.

There is still a hard core of offenders out there, older men full of contemptible bravado about how much they can drink without being affected, and younger men cocksure about not getting caught, the generation gap between the two groups bridged by shared foolishness.

It is dreadfully inevitable that some of them will be killed over Christmas and the New Year. Worse, so might others who, despite being stone cold sober and blameless, happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However successful the anti drink driving campaign has been, more still needs to be done. The annual blitz focuses minds, but it remains a year-round problem.

The continuing relentlessness of policing is part of the answer, of course, but so is psychological warfare, and a canny initiative in Scotland launched a few days ago looks very promising indeed.

The drink-drive limit north of the border has been lowered by more than a third, sowing a seed of uncertainty in the minds of those who would get behind the wheel after visiting the pub over just how much it is supposedly safe to drink before driving.

All the hoary old rubbish about it being fine to drive after two pints of beer, or a single large glass of wine, is undermined by the new lower limit. The only truly safe amount to drink before driving is zero.

The hope is that drivers decide the new limit makes it not worth the risk of being stopped. Nobody is trying to be a killjoy – enjoy a festive tipple by all means, but leave driving out of the plans for the evening.

If it works and the tally of accidents falls – as we should all hope it does – the new lower limit will surely be rolled out to the rest of Britain if for no other reason than it would be absurd for a driver crossing the border to find that he can drive legally on one side, but not on the other.

No less canny a piece of psychological pressure is being applied by West Yorkshire Police, with its promise of using Twitter to name and shame convicted drink drivers as part of the Christmas campaign. The prospect of such public humiliation is a powerful inducement.

This is a psychological battle in which no quarter should be given, nor any tactic discounted, until it is won. Over the next few weeks, lives really are at stake.