On the road for West Yorkshire’s festive drink-drive crackdown

It’s the early hours of Monday morning, and as he sits in the back of a police car outside a Leeds pub one pre-Christmas reveller’s night has just taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

10 Dec 2014..........Generic pictures of West Yorkshire Police's Roads Policing Unit tackling drink-driving at Christmas. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1006/17h

Spotted by a passing police officer in his Audi A3 with a group of friends after an evening at one of the many nightspots in student-friendly Headingley, he has alcohol on his breath and has little choice but to admit he has been drinking.

A blow into the officer’s mobile breathalyser reveals the inevitable for the young teacher, a score of 68 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath that is nearly twice the legal alcohol limit for getting behind the wheel.

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With his friends having vanished into the night, he is arrested and driven to a police station where a second test will confirm the result and ultimately land him with a hefty fine and a driving ban of at least a year.

Generic pictures of West Yorkshire Police tackling drink-driving at Christmas. Picture Scott Merrylees

It might be the three or four drinks he has under his belt, but on the drive to Elland Road police station he seems philosophical about it. “It was my fault”, he concedes. “The lads said I should get a taxi but I hate waiting in the cold.”

This isn’t the first time he has got behind the wheel after drinking and Pc Steve Megson, who sits next to him in the marked car, suggests to him this conviction was “only a matter of time”. “It was”, he agrees.

Though potentially life-changing for him, arrests similar to the one seen by The Yorkshire Post yesterday were a common sight over a weekend where 27 people were caught drink-driving in West Yorkshire.

It brings the number of charges for being over the prescribed alcohol limit or failing to provide a specimen to 60 since the start of the month, and with Christmas party season in full swing the total is expected to rise quickly between now and December 25.

10 Dec 2014..........Generic pictures of West Yorkshire Police's Roads Policing Unit tackling drink-driving at Christmas. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1006/17j

Last December, Yorkshire’s biggest force arrested 189 people for drink and drug driving related offences, and are this month publishing the details of everyone they catch online.

While accompanied by The Yorkshire Post, Pc Megson and his colleague Pc Clive Heaton are on the look-out for drivers who may be over the limit during their night shift.

The pair are part of the Safer Roads and Neighbourhood Support service formed during the latest cost-cutting restructure by the force, replacing the dedicated Roads Policing Unit with teams of local neighbourhood officers, divided into units covering the East and West of the county, who are expected to do a wider range of tasks.

It’s a relatively quiet Sunday night shift in Leeds city centre after a busy weekend. A handful of motorists are pulled over for moving vehicle offences such as lights not working or not wearing a seatbelt, though when tested none have alcohol on their breath.

Generic pictures of West Yorkshire Police tackling drink-driving at Christmas. Picture Scott Merrylees

Those that do, says Pc Heaton, are usually apologetic and admit their actions straight away. “You find that they aren’t too far from a taxi rank”, says Pc Megson, “but they would rather spend the cash on an extra beer than a taxi home”.

Though levels of drink-driving have been falling steadily since the 1970s, police in West Yorkshire are worried that dozens are still caught flouting the law in the county each December, with those aged 25 to 34 the most likely to be stopped.

According to Inspector Joanne Field, who leads the Safer Roads and Neighbourhood Support teams, the arrests vary from those just over the 35 microgramme limit to those who are two or three times the limit and can barely stand up.

“From the figures it is more the big cities where it happens, they had the highest number of arrests last year,” she said. “Last week there was someone from Derby arrested in our area, in Bradford, so you get people coming in from outside West Yorkshire.

“This year we have had the 50th anniversary of the drink-driving campaign, which shows how it has progressed. It has gone from it being acceptable to it being socially unacceptable to drink-drive.

“There is a lot of pressure on people now. People have got a lot more to lose nowadays. If you get a drink driving conviction now it is on your record for ten years and that might make you unemployable.”

This year, West Yorkshire’s most senior detective Dave Knopwood was dismissed by the force after a court banned him from driving for 12 months and fined him £1,000 for failing to provide a specimen for a drink-driving breath test.

Police in North Yorkshire, who stopped Knopwood in Knaresborough during the summer, have already made 47 arrests for suspected drink-driving since the start of December, a number deputy chief constable Tim Madgwick says is “too high”.

“A number of these have seen offenders arrested the following morning after being over twice the legal limit,” he said. “This really demonstrates just how careful you need to be. There is no set formula for how alcohol leaves the body and everyone is different. The central message from the police is ‘don’t drink and drive.’”

Senior officers from the force last year spoke of their concerns about the number of fatal collisions in North Yorkshire where alcohol was a factor, and that drivers may be becoming desensitised to awareness campaigns.

The number of alcohol-related fatalities has dropped this year, and early analysis by the force shows that of the 42 fatal collisions so far in 2014, around ten per cent are thought to be alcohol-related.

The force has recently teamed up with The Honest Truth, a group aiming to cut the number of 17 to 24-year-olds killed on our roads by getting messages to young drivers through approved driving instructors.

Mr Madgwick, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead for motorcycling, said the number of drink drivers has fallen recently, but that “reckless individuals... persist in carrying out this illegal and dangerous behaviour.” He said: “These people need to understand the extent of the risks they are taking to other people’s lives, as well as their own.”

He recently made headlines after criticising the Government for refusing to bring England and Wales in line with Scotland, where the drink-drive limit is now 22 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. He said: “I have made my view clear that I believe England should follow the majority of Europe and Scotland.”

He added: “Research has shown that after drinking, you are six times more at risk of being killed in an accident despite still being under the legal limit.

“The Government had this recommendation made to them in 2010 via the North report, but they are still stalling on making any changes despite other improved changes around testing devices and procedures. The report predicted that a reduction in the limit could save over 40 lives per year in Great Britain – these figures speak for themselves.”

According to motoring law expert Andy Cash, from Cartwright King Solicitors, the country has some of the highest drink-driving limits in Europe.

He said: “In a poll recently two out three people said they supported lower limits or zero tolerance. Zero is difficult as most of us carry background levels of alcohol in our blood. 22 microgrammes is as close as it gets to the zero limit.

“Here, if you are over the limit you will be banned, in a lot of European countries the courts have flexibility, they can deal with it in other ways. We as lawyers spend a lot of time talking about a lack of discretion.”

He added: “On the other hand some people say drink-drivers should be banned for life because it is so dangerous.”