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Cheer the breathalyser – 50 years old and still blowing strong

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October 10, 2017
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It’s a sobering thought that this month marks 50 years since the breathalyser was first introduced to Britain’s highways and byways by the then Minister for Transport Barbara Castle.

Measuring a motorist’s blood-alcohol level, the breathalyser was first put into use on October 8, 1967, with a driver in Shropshire the first to be asked to “blow in the bag”.

Before the breathalyser, motorists had to undergo a series of rather archaic sobriety tests if they were suspected of being incapable of driving through drink.

For example, you could be asked to close your eyes and touch the end of your nose with the tip of the finger, walk heel to toe along a straight chalk line, or recite a teasing tongue twister.

Convictions were based on eyewitness accounts rather than scientific fact.

The breathalyser came 70 years after first conviction

That’s not to say these tests weren’t without success. The first person convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol was 25-year old London taxi driver George Smith who was charged and pleaded guilty to drink driving in September 1897.

He was fined 25 shillings – £1.25p in today’s money – though in real terms that would be the equivalent of around £150.

The development of the breathalyser followed the introduction of a law setting out the first quantifiable drink-drive limits.

Under the Road Safety Act of 1967 it became illegal to be in charge of a motor vehicle with more than 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath).

In its first year the new law was credited with cutting the number of accidents where alcohol had been a factor from 25 per cent to 15 per cent and since then the number of road deaths attributed to alcohol has reduced eight-fold. In 1967 it was 1,640, in 2015 it was 200.


Road safety campaigners urge tougher breathalyser laws

Since 1967, the legal drink-drive limit has remained the same in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but it has been lowered to 50mg per 100ml in Scotland. Road safety campaigners have long urged Government to reduce the limit further.

Police carried out more than half a million (520,219) roadside breath tests in 2015 and more than 60,000 drivers (one in eight of those tested) failed or refused to take the test.

Department for Transport stats show that men are twice as likely as women to fail a breath test.

As well as the social stigma, a criminal record and inevitable loss of licence for those convicted of drink driving, there are long term implications, such as inflated insurance premiums in years to come, to take into consideration too.

However, that doesn’t have to be the case. Adrian Flux understands in many cases there can be mitigating circumstances behind a drink drive conviction and they can underwrite the risk based on the full circumstances, rather than just treating everyone the same.

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