1966: Introducing the Drink/Drive Limit

Roadside Test

Just like the placing of Bank Holidays or the fact that the clocks go backwards and forwards each year, there are things that we naturally adhere to by default and don’t really question when they were introduced.

One of these is the drink-drive limit, an obvious mandate to drivers to not be too inebriated prior to being in charge of a vehicle. Although it had been an offence to be ‘drunk-in-charge’ of a vehicle since the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until January 1966 that a formal intoxication limit was put in place.

Drunk Victorian

Following World War 2 the social scene of the 1960’s was booming. The increased availability of raw materials, disposable income and a general freedom of choice meant the number of cars on the road began to grow at a significant rate.

Originally proposed in June 1965, the new law stated that drivers exceeding 80mg (milligrams) of alcohol in 100cc (cubic centimetres) of blood were ‘over the limit’, and could be prosecuted for the first time. Such stipulations were in their infancy then but, compared to today’s standards, this was actually a very generous allowance.

Due to varying body weights and other lifestyle factors it’s impossible to state the exact point as to when you become ‘drunk’, but this original level was just over double of what we today call the drink-drive limit (35mg), and somewhere over 4 glasses of wine. That’s almost a bottle.

That said, the final 1966 law wasn’t half as concerning as some of the proposals made in the consideration process. One of the more outlandish suggestions allowed the equivalent of eight pints (or 12 single shots of spirits) be permissible!

Attitudes and habits changed almost immediately, causing the publicans of the time to march on Westminster in protest at the new restrictions, such was the immediate hit to their lunchtime trading. People who drove to and from work were now routinely foregoing their pub lunch tipple and the loss of business was being keenly felt.

To this day critics continue to challenge the government on what constitutes a ’safe’ level of drinking prior to driving, primarily as the word ‘safe’ is very open to interpretation. One side states that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ limit isn’t good enough, whilst the other suggests that there’s no ‘safe’ limit and that drinking should be avoided altogether before driving.

The number of cars on the road in the mid-sixties stood at around the 5 million mark, and unbelievably they were responsible for a percentage-busting 2,000 deaths a year. Projections put together at the time estimated that, if left unchecked, the number of road deaths per year could spiral to nearly 1 million by the 1980’s.

Clunk Click

The 1966 law change, which also saw the introduction of the dreaded breathalyser, was actually well ahead of its time, coming a full 17 years before the (arguably just as important) wearing of a seat belt became mandatory in 1983.

Since records began in 1979 drink related road deaths are down an amazing 85%, currently standing at an average of 282* deaths per year. Even though that’s 282 deaths too many, it’s clear to see how far we’ve come.

Cheers!

* Source: Drinkaware, statistics 2010-2015
This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.
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