Drink-drive limits: everything you need to know

Drink-drive limits: everything you need to know
Drink-driving is one of the most dangerous things a motorist can do. But despite years of safety campaigns, one in eight road deaths is caused by drink-related collisions.

Department for Transport (DfT) figures show that 9,040 people were either killed or injured in crashes involving drunk drivers in 2016 alone, a worrying year-on-year rise of 7%. 

To keep you safe and on the right side of the law, here’s our guide to everything you need to know about laws surrounding drink-driving. 

Guide contents

The drink-driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

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.

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 now 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, or 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.

Should the drink-drive limit be the same across the UK?

Whether England, Wales, and Northern Ireland should follow Scotland’s lead regarding the drink-drive limit has been a subject for discussion for several years, with many believing that the limit should be standardised.

In its 2018 Report on Motoring, the RAC reiterated its call for the UK government to reconsider current drink-drive limits and reduce the legal blood alcohol limit nationwide to 50mg/100ml.

However, some safety campaigners don’t think this reduction would go far enough in tackling drink-driving and are campaigning for a UK-wide limit of 20mg per 100ml — in effect, a zero-tolerance policy. 

Joshua Harris, director of campaigns at road safety charity Brake, says the current laws around drink-driving lack clarity and has urged the Government to adopt tougher restrictions. 

He said: “Brake is calling for the Government to implement an effective zero tolerance drink-drive limit of 20mg per 100ml of blood, making clear to drivers that not a drop of alcohol is safe.”

Despite increasing pressure, in 2018 a spokesperson for the DfT said: "The government currently has no immediate plans to lower the drink-drive limit. However, we keep this policy area under constant review and will always welcome robust and accurate evidence on this subject."

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How many units of alcohol can you drink and drive?

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, so the only way to stay perfectly safe and legal is to avoid alcohol altogether. 

One unit equals 10 millilitres or 8 grams of pure alcohol, but the effect a single unit has on your blood alcohol level varies 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 smallest amount of alcohol can affect your vision, reaction times and ability to drive, even if you remain well below the legal drink-drive limit of 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres.

Data from the World Health Organisation suggests that drivers with 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.

So the easiest way to make sure you remain safe behind the wheel is to simply not drink any alcohol at all if you intend to drive.

How many hours after drinking can I drive?

Drink drive limit

There’s no definitive answer to this question because there’s no exact way of knowing how long it will take you to sober up after drinking alcohol.

Old wives’ tales about how drinking coffee, eating, sleeping or showering will somehow make you sober up quicker are just that — old wives’ tales. In truth, the only thing that will definitely sober you up is time.

Research has suggested that it takes a typical adult an hour to process one unit of alcohol. A pint of strong lager contains three units of alcohol, so it will take around three hours for your body to process, but even then, this will depend on the individual. 

So, if you have a drink at lunchtime don’t assume that you’ll be sober enough to drive home after work, because the chances are you could still be over the legal limit. To stay on the safe side, either take public transport or avoid drinking at lunch altogether. 

Can I drive the morning after drinking?

As there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll take you to sober up, there’s also no way of knowing if you can legally and safely drive the morning after a night’s drinking.

To keep you below the limit, Brake advises that if you need to drive the next day you should stick to one or two drinks maximum, but if you have a particularly heavy night your driving could be impaired for all of the next day.

And don’t think about sleeping off a heavy night in your car, either. If you’re caught by police you could be charged with being “drunk in charge” even though you’re not actually driving.

If you’re heading out drinking then get a lift from a sober friend, book a taxi or check local public transport timetables and make sure you know when the last bus/train/tram leaves so you don’t get stranded.

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Do many people still drink and drive?

According to figures from the RAC 2018 Report on Motoring, there’s been a worrying increase in the number of drivers who admit they have driven while thinking they are over the limit, up from 8% to 12% in the last year.

This is in line with a disturbing trend which shows a growing number of motorists who admit to driving while knowing or thinking they’re over the limit, which was 6% in 2016 and just 4% in 2015.

As David Davies, Executive Director for the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) suggests, this could be because “people simply feel they are less likely to be caught: there are fewer police on the roads, and this is a crime that a camera cannot detect.”

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

What happens if I get caught 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 been involved in a collision. 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.

The penalties for drink-driving

The penalties for being caught drink-driving are severe and you could face a prison sentence, driving ban and substantial fine if you’re found guilty. 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

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 to 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.

How to avoid drink-driving

Drink driving

This one’s easy — just don’t drink if you’re planning to drive.

If you’re heading out for a night on the town, make sure you’re not put in a position that could see you getting behind the wheel, by planning your journey home at the end of the night.

Depending on your location and circumstances, this could include:

  • Use public transport: check the times of the last train, bus, tube or tram, and ensure you don’t end your night too far away from transport links
  • Select a designated driver before you head out for the evening — you could offer to pay for their (non-alcoholic) drinks as a thank you
  • Do something that doesn’t involve drinking
  • Stick to alcohol-free drinks
  • Book a taxi for a certain time or when you’re ready to set off for home

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. If you’re in any doubt whatsoever, don’t get behind the wheel.

How to report someone for drink-driving

Broaching the subject of drink-driving with a friend or family member can be difficult, particularly if sensitive subjects like alcoholism are involved. Try and convince them to share a taxi home instead or offer to be the designated driver yourself. 

If you try and convince a stranger against drink-driving there’s a possibility they could get violent or abusive, particularly if they’re already quite drunk, so think twice before approaching anyone you don’t know. 

If you do decide to report someone trying to operate a vehicle while drunk – whether a stranger, friend or family member – you should call 999 and supply details about the car and driver to police.

If you wish to report someone after the incident has taken place, you can call 101 to talk to the police or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. 

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