Drink-drive limits: can I still drive?

Drink-drive limits: can I still drive?
Government figures estimate drink-drive fatalities accounted for 13% of all road deaths in 2015.

If you’re caught over the drink-drive limit you’re risking your livelihood, personal freedom and a criminal record, but far worse than that, you’re risking your life, the lives of your passengers and the lives other road users.

Read our guide to find out everything you need to know for staying on the right side of the law.

Contents

What is the drink-driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

What is the drink-driving limit in Scotland?

How many units are you allowed to consume before driving?

How long do you have to wait to drive after drinking?

Do many people still drink and drive?

What happens if you get pulled over for drink-driving?

What are the penalties for drink-driving?

Steps you can take to ensure you don’t drink and drive


What is the drink-driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Drink drive limits

The drink-driving limit for drivers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath or 107 milligrams per 100 millilitres of urine.

What is the drink-driving limit in Scotland?

In December 2014, Scotland lowered its drink-driving limits to fall in line with most other European countries. The limit is 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood or 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.

Should the drink-drive limit in Scotland be the same as the rest of the UK?

The debate about whether England, Wales and Northern Ireland should reduce the limit to 50mg/100ml from the current 80mg/100ml level is ongoing. Earlier this year, the Department for Transport said that there were no plans to review the law as it stands. 

The RAC's 2016 Report on Motoring shows strong support among motorists for a lower drink-drive limit across the whole of the UK with 57% in favour.

More specifically, 36% think it should be 50mg/100ml and 21% think it should be 20mg/100ml.

Opinion is split over whether a lower UK-wide limit of 50mg/100ml would be effective in deterring drink-drivers. Two-fifths (40%) think it would help, against 37% who don’t. Interestingly, 60% of Scottish motorists think a reduction would be effective, which is perhaps a reflection of their positive experience since the law was changed two years ago. 

How many units are you allowed to consume before driving?

As the NHS points out, there’s no safe way to calculate how many units you can consume and remain below the legal alcohol limit. One unit equals 10 millilitres or 8 grams of pure alcohol, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Alcohol’s effect on the body will vary from person to person and is dependent on a number of different factors, such as:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Any food you may have consumed
  • The type of alcohol
  • Tiredness
  • Stress levels

The safe answer is to avoid alcohol altogether if you intend to drive home. Even the smallest amount of alcohol in your system can affect your vision, reaction times and ability to drive.

Data from the World Health Organisation suggests that drivers with a relatively small amount of between 20-50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood are three times more likely to die in a crash than those who have not consumed any alcohol. 

According to the Government’s road safety campaignTHINK! a second drink can double your chance of a fatal collision.

How long do you have to wait to drive after drinking?

Drink drive limit

Sadly, there’s no exact answer to this question, either. Many drivers are caught drink-driving the morning after a night out.

It’s a similar story if you drink at lunchtime – don’t think you’ll be fit to drive home from the office. Forget the old wives tales about drinking coffee or taking a cold shower – there’s no quick way to sober up.

Put it this way: typically, an adult will process one unit of alcohol in an hour. Based on a pint of strong lager containing three units of alcohol, it will take around three hours for your body to process the alcohol. If in doubt, don’t drink or don’t drive.

Brake advises people who need to drive the next day to limit themselves to one or two drinks at the maximum.

Do many people still drink and drive?

The RAC's 2016 RAC Report on Motoring does show a small rise in the number of people who admit to having driven while over the limit over the past year: 6% say they have done so shortly after drinking, up from 4% in 2015, while 2% say they have got behind the wheel the morning after drinking despite thinking they were still over the limit (1% in 2015).

As previous statistics have shown, it is people under the age of 45 who are most likely to admit to drink-driving.

The rate in Scotland is lower than the UK average, and this may be due to the fact that there has been a lower blood-alcohol limit than the rest of the UK in force north of the border since December 2014. 

What happens if you get pulled over for drink-driving?

Caught drink driving

The police have the right to ask you to take a breath test if they believe you have been drinking, committed a traffic offence or you’ve been involved in a road traffic accident. If you refuse to supply a sample of breath you will be arrested.

If you fail the breath test, you will be driven to a police station for a second breath test and if that returns a positive result, you will be charged.

READ MORE: What is a Fixed Penalty Notice?

What are the penalties for drink-driving?

The penalties for being caught drink-driving are severe and you could face a prison sentence, a driving ban and a substantial fine if you’re found guilty of an offence. The actual penalty is up to the magistrate who hears your case and the severity of the offence.

As a guide, the Government has laid out the following set of consequences for a specific charge:

Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink could get you:

  • Three months’ imprisonment
  • A fine of up to £2,500
  • A possible driving ban

Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink could get you:

  • Six months’ imprisonment
  • An unlimited fine (at magistrate’s discretion)
  • Banned from driving for at least a year (three years if convicted for a second time in 10 years)

Refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis could get you:

  • Six months’ imprisonment
  • An unlimited fine (at magistrate’s discretion)
  • Banned from driving for at least a year

Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink could get you:

  • 14 years’ imprisonment
  • An unlimited fine (at magistrate’s discretion)
  • Banned from driving for at least two years
  • An extended driving test before your licence is returned

Other problems you may face if caught drink-driving

The problems don’t stop at a prison sentence, driving ban and substantial fine. It’s worth noting that you might be able to reduce your ban by taking a drink-driving rehabilitation course if you’re banned from driving for 12 months or more, but it’s up for the court to decide whether or not to offer this.

Other issues include:

  • A significant increase in the cost of your car insurance, with some companies refusing to offer cover
  • Difficulty in finding a driving-related job. Indeed, all potential employers will see your previous conviction
  • You may have trouble travelling to countries like the United States

Figures released by the Institute of Advanced Motorists suggest a drink-driving conviction would cost between £20,000 and £50,000 once you’ve taken into account fines, loss of income, legal fees and higher insurance premiums.

Steps you can take to ensure you don’t drink and drive

Drink driving

Quite simply: if you’re going to drive, don’t drink and if you’re going to drink, don’t drive. You should make a plan for your evening out to ensure you’re not put in a position that could lead to you getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol. These include:

  • Using public transport: check the times of the last trains and buses, while ensuring you're close to transport links
  • Selecting a designated drive before you head out for the evening
  • Do something that doesn’t involve drinking
  • Sticking to alcohol-free drinks
  • Book a taxi for a certain time or when you’re ready to set off for home

Remember, don’t drink and drive. Even if it’s the morning after the night before, you could be over the limit. If in doubt, don’t drive.

It may also be worth considering a breathalyser kit as a guide to whether or not you’re safe to drive, but don’t rely on them. Simply put, if you are in any doubt whatsoever, don’t get behind the wheel.