Drink Driving

The Drink Driving Law

Offences in relation to drink driving fall under the Road Traffic Act 1988.
This area of law relating to drink driving is often very complicated with many road users not being aware or confused by alcohol levels and drink driving limits.
Besides understanding alcohol levels and limits road users should also be aware and understand what constitutes driving or being in charge of a vehicle whilst over the prescribed limit.
If you are faced with any criminal proceedings involving drink driving, solicitors assistance should be sought as soon as possible.

Drink Driving Statistics
(Source of Information/references: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents – August 2012)

In 2011, provisional figures show that in drink drive accidents 280 people were killed, 1,290 were seriously injured and there were almost 10,000 casualties in total. Almost 300 people are still killed in drink drive accidents every year (about 1 in 6 of all road deaths), even though the level of drinking and driving has dropped dramatically over the last thirty years. However, despite many years of drink drive education and police action, over 80,000 people are still caught drink driving every year. In many cases an innocent person is the victim and not the driver who is over the drink drive limit. 2010 saw one hundred and twenty pedestrians killed or seriously injured as a result of drink drivers, along with twenty pedal cyclists and fifty-four car passengers. Sixty children were also killed or seriously injured by drink drivers in the same year. Also in 2010, over 773,000 breath tests were carried out with more than 83,000 of these drivers or riders either failing the test, or refusing to take the test.

What is the drink driving limit?

Without doubt, the safest option is to not drink any alcohol if you plan to drive. There is no actual way of knowing how much you can drink and still drive safely, or of drinking and staying below the legal prescribed limit.
In the UK, the legal limit is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood in your body.
As a rough guide, this means:

  • Men should drink no more than four units of alcohol before driving.
  • Women should drink no more than three units of alcohol before driving.

These guidelines are not a statement of fact, and must not be taken as a guarantee of keeping below the legal limit under any particular circumstances.

It is impossible to be sure if you are safe even using these amounts as a guide, because many factors affect how your body breaks down alcohol.
Just one drink could push you over the legal limit, even if you feel unaffected.
On average, it takes about one hour for your body to break down one unit of alcohol.
However, this can vary, depending on:

  • your weight
  • whether you are male or female
  • your age
  • how quickly or slowly your body turns food into energy (your metabolism)
  • your stress levels
  • how much food you have eaten
  • the type and strength of the alcohol
  • whether you’re taking medication and, if so, what type

It can also take longer if your liver is not working normally.

How much is one unit?

One unit of alcohol is roughly equivalent to half a pint of beer or a 25ml pub measure of spirit. A small (125ml) glass of wine is equivalent to about 1.5 units as is a 275ml bottle of Alco pops. A 5% alcohol-strength pint of beer is 2.8 units.

Adding up your units.

If you drink a large (250ml) glass of wine, your body takes about three hours to break down the alcohol.
If you drink one pint of beer, your body takes about two hours to break it down. One pint of strong lager is equivalent to three units, so this will take longer.
If you have a few drinks during a night out, it can take many hours for the alcohol to leave your body. The alcohol could still be in your blood during the next day.

Effects of alcohol on driving.

Any amount of alcohol affects your judgment and your ability to drive safely.
You may not notice the effects but even a small amount of alcohol can:

  • reduce your co-ordination
  • slow down your reactions
  • reduce your field of vision
  • affect how you judge speed, distance and risk

Alcohol can also make you over-confident. You are more likely to take risks, creating dangerous situations for other road users, pedestrians and yourself. How long do the effects last?

Alcohol takes time to leave your body.
For example:

  • if you drink at lunchtime, you may be unfit to drive in the evening
  • if you drink in the evening, you may be unfit to drive the next morning

There is no quick way of sobering up. It is a myth that drinking coffee or a cold shower can help you sober up. Time is the only thing that gets alcohol out of your body. If you intend driving a vehicle you could still be over the legal limit or unfit to drive many hours after drinking.

Being unfit to drive – Driving or in charge of a vehicle above the limit.

Under Section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is an offence to drive, attempt to drive, or be in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or public place while unfit through drinking or taking drugs.
You would be considered unfit if your ability to drive properly is impaired (even if the amount of alcohol in your body is within the limit). Evidence of being unfit may be found in erratic driving, the occurrence of an accident, your condition and bodily control (defined as the ability to use major and minor muscles to give the body stability, balance and poise).

The police can stop you if they suspect you are driving under the influence of alcohol. Also, if the police suspect you are about to drive a vehicle (for instance you have your keys in your hands and are just leaving a pub) you can also be stopped and asked to take a drink-driving test. You may also be asked to take a breath test if you are involved in a road traffic accident.

The police may also be entitled to demand a preliminary breath test from a motorist who is or was ‘in charge’ of a vehicle. For example, the supervisor of a learner driver or a car owner who decides to rest or sleep in the front passenger seat could in certain circumstances be required to provide a breath test.

Consideration must also be given to drinking the night before you have to drive.
If you consume a quantity of alcohol the night before you are due to drive, you may well still be over the limit when driving a vehicle the following morning. Drivers often forget this or dismiss the fact they may still be over the limit
When drinking the night before driving, men should consume no more than 10 units and women no more than 7 units. (This assumes that no alcohol is consumed after 11.30 pm, and that driving does not take place before 8 am the following morning).

These guidelines are not a statement of fact, and must not be taken as a guarantee of keeping below the legal limit under any particular circumstances.

Drink driving offences include:

  • Driving or attempting to drive “on a road or other public place” after consuming so much alcohol that the proportion of it in your breath, blood or urine exceeds the  prescribed limit.
  • Being in charge of a motor vehicle “on a road or other public place” after consuming alcohol so that the proportion of it in your breath, blood or urine exceeds the  prescribed limit.
  • Without reasonable excuse, failing to supply a specimen for a breath test.
  • Without reasonable excuse, failing to supply specimens of breath or blood or urine for analysis.
  • Without reasonable excuse, failing to allow a specimen of blood to be taken for a laboratory Test.

 Stopped by the Police.

The request to stop your vehicle must be made by a uniformed or non uniformed Police Officer.
A Police Officer does not have to be in uniform anymore when requesting a preliminary breath  test, but does have to be in uniform to administer it, unless after an accident.
The request can only be made if one of the following situations applies:

  • The police officer has reasonable cause to suspect that you have committed, or are currently committing a moving traffic offence.
  • If, having stopped, an officer has reasonable cause to suspect that the person driving/attempting to drive/in charge of the vehicle has consumed alcohol.
  • The police officer has reasonable cause to believe that you were the person driving/attempting to drive/in charge of a motor vehicle which was involved in an accident.

The first test that you will take after the police have stopped you will be a breath test. This is referred to as the ‘preliminary breath test’.
If you provide a positive breath test you will be arrested and taken to a police station.

Refusing a preliminary breath test.

You are breaking the law if you refuse to take a preliminary breath test, but if you do refuse you will be arrested and taken to a police station where a sample of your blood or urine will be taken for testing.

What happens at the Police Station.
At the police station you will usually be asked to provide two specimens of breath for analysis (using approved evidential instruments, for example, an Intoximeter EC/IR;  Lion Intoxilyzer; or Camic Datamaster). If the two readings differ then the police must rely on the lower reading. If the reading is over the prescribed limit then you will have committed an offence and you will be charged.
If the lowest reading is below the prescribed limit you will be released with out charge.
You will be given a printout of the alcohol level that has been detected for your own records.

You do not have a right to insist on supplying a sample of blood or urine instead. If you fail to supply a breath specimen at the station you will committed an offence, unless you have a reasonable excuse. Being too drunk or unfit to supply the necessary breath specimen is NOT a reasonable excuse.
A medical condition which prevents you from supplying enough breath for the machine to sample may be a sufficient excuse. If you have such a condition you must advise the police at the time.
The police may legitimately request that you provide a specimen of blood or urine as an alternative to a breath test if:

  • No automatic measuring device is available at the time of your arrest, or it is not working properly.
  • The offence involves drugs and the police officer has taken medical advice that your condition may be due to drugs.
  • The police officer making the request has reasonable cause to believe that breath samples should not be requested for health reasons.

Refusing to provide a further breath test / sample

An offence is committed if you:

  • fail to provide a specimen of breath/blood/urine at the police station when requested (unless you have a reasonable excuse)
  • refusal to provide a specimen

If you refuse or delay giving a sample until a solicitor arrives, this is also deemed as a refusal.

You should be aware that a refusal to cooperate with a request to take a preliminary breath test may result in a conviction even if no “moving traffic offence” has actually been committed or even where the driver has consumed no alcohol
If you do refuse and subsequently a court does not accept your reasons, it will be too late to avoid the offence of refusal. A conviction for failing or refusing to give a sample at the police station would make you liable to an automatic disqualification.

What is the prescribed limit?

The prescribed limit refers to the legal alcohol levels in your breath, blood and urine.

What are the Legal Alcohol Levels (Prescribed limits)?

You can be found guilty of drink driving if you have the following levels of alcohol in your blood:

  • 35 microgrammes of alcohol in a 100 millilitres of your breath
  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol in a 100 millilitres of your blood
  • 107 milligrammes of alcohol in a 100 millilitres of your urine

Note that if one of the two breath tests you take is below 39 microgrammes you will not be charged. If your breath test is between 40 and 50 microgrammes you must be offered the chance to give an alternative blood or urine specimen. However, if your breath test is over 51 microgrammes you will be automatically charged and face an appearance in court.

What happens if you are charged?

If your alcohol tests are positive you will be told your rights and cautioned about anything you say as this can be used in evidence against you. The details of your offence will be recorded on your charge sheet that you will have to sign. You will be given a copy to keep. You will then be free to go, but you must and will be expected to appear at court on the date and time stated on your charge sheet.
However, if you are still over the prescribed limit and the Police believe you may try to drive a vehicle or that you are considered to be a risk to yourself and/or others, you may be placed into a cell to “cool off”.

The Penalties

The following chart is a guide to the maximum penalties that can be administered by a Court.
This may be different depending on circumstances of the offence. For example, first offences may not attract the same penalty as that of a repeat offender.

Offence Courts Road Traffic
Act Section
Imprisonment Fine Disqualification Penalty Points
Driving or attempting to
drive while unfit
Magistrates s.4(1) 6 months £5,000 Mandatory (minimum
12 months)
3 – 11
Driving or attempting to
drive with excess alcohol
Magistrates s.5(1)(a) 6 months £5,000 Mandatory (minimum
2 years)
3 – 11
In charge while unfit Magistrates s.4(2) 3 months £2,500 Discretionary 10
In charge with excess alcohol Magistrates s.5(1)(b) 3 months £2,500 Discretionary 10
Refusing a preliminary breath test Magistrates s.6(4) £1,000 Discretionary 4
Failing or refusing to provide
an evidential specimen when driving
or attempting to drive
Magistrates s.7(6) 6 months £5,000 Mandatory (Minimum
12 months)
3 – 9
Failing or refusing to provide an
evidential specimen (in charge)
Magistrates s.7(6) 3 months £5,000 Discretionary 10
Failing to give permission for a
laboratory test of a blood specimen
when “driving or attempting to drive”
Magistrates s.7A 6 months £5,000 Mandatory 3 – 11
Failing to give permission for a
laboratory test of a blood specimen
(in charge)
Magistrates s.7A 3 months £2,500 Discretionary 10


In summary, if you are found guilty of drink driving the penalties are:

  • a ban from driving for at least 1 year
  • a fine of up to £5,000
  • between 3 and 11 points to be put on your licence
  • a possible prison sentence of up to 6 months (although this is reserved for repeat drink driving offenders or those who have been found to be several times over the drink driving limit)

 Also consider other consequences:

  • the loss of your job
  • a massive increase in insurance premiums when you are able to drive again
  • the possibility of undergoing medical examinations before you can drive again
  • attendance on a drink driving rehabilitation course.
  • visa restrictions (particularly in terms of entry to the USA).
  • a criminal record with the conviction for drink driving remaining on your licence for 11 years. If you are a professional, for example: doctors; accountants; solicitors, you will most likely have to report the conviction to your superiors / administrators.
  • law enforcement officers, for example Police and Customs will have a criminal conviction on their record which will remain throughout their service

SIMPLE ALTERNATIVE TO THE ABOVE – IF YOU ARE DRIVING….DON’T DRINK  

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