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Drink-driving – what are the risks?

Apr 21, 2021

One extra drink can be enough to turn your life upside down. A drink-driving road accident could mean death or injury for you, your passengers or other road users. In addition, a conviction for a drink driving offence can have a severe impact on your finances and ability to find car insurance for years to come.

Let’s look at the law on drink driving and why it’s always better to play it safe. If you make a mistake and are struggling with higher car insurance premiums, insurance with a black box could help you to prove you’ve learned your lesson.

What is the UK law on drink driving?

In England and Wales, the law says you can drive with blood-alcohol concentration of up to 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (80mg/ml). This is the highest limit of any country in Europe; many countries have a zero limit. In Scotland the limit is 50mg/ml.

The penalties for drink driving are severe. Simply being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit could result in three months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £2,500 and a possible driving ban.

If you’re found guilty of the most serious drink-driving offence of causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink, the penalty is a prison sentence of up to 14 years, an unlimited fine, a ban from driving for a minimum of two years and a driving test in order to regain your licence.

Drivers who are given a driving ban for a period of 12 months or more may be able to reduce the ban duration by completing a rehabilitation course to improve their driving skills and awareness.

The penalties for drink driving are severe. Simply being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit could result in three months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £2,500 and a possible driving ban.

A pair of car keys next to a broken glass containing whiskey
How do police find your blood alcohol level?

If you are pulled over by the police, they may ask you to carry out a breath test to establish whether you are over the blood alcohol limit.

They can do this if they think you have been drinking, if you have committed a traffic offence or if you have been involved in a road accident.

The test involves blowing through a tube into a device that measures the alcohol level in your breath; if you appear to be over the limit, you will be taken to a police station so a more accurate test can be carried out. If this test is positive, you will likely be charged with a drink-driving offence.

Refusal to carry out a blood alcohol test is an offence in itself. The test can be carried out using your breath, or a specimen of blood or urine. Failure to provide these is punishable by up to 6 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a driving ban of at least one year.

The police are very experienced in recognising tell-tale signs that a driver has been drinking. Careless driving or committing another minor traffic offence such as failure to use a seatbelt or exceeding the speed limit are likely to alert the police to a drink-driver.

The police are not allowed to randomly stop drivers for testing, although research suggests 72% of UK drivers would support this.

Working out your own blood alcohol level

Unless you have your own breathalyser device, there is no way of knowing for sure what your blood alcohol level is.

The concentration of alcohol in the blood varies according to factors such as your weight, age, sex, metabolism, what type of alcohol you have drunk and how much, whether you have eaten recently and whether you are under stress.

A rough guide is that after drinking, you should allow one hour for your body to absorb the alcohol, plus one hour for each unit consumed. This is not an exact calculation, because people’s bodies absorb alcohol differently.

If you have around nine units of alcohol – two or three pints of lager or a bottle of 12% ABV wine, and finished drinking at midnight, the very earliest you would be able to drive the next morning would be 9am.

As most people have to get up and about before this time on a working day, it’s advisable to limit yourself to one or two drinks in the evening if you know you have to drive the next day.

Eating, drinking, showering or consuming coffee might make you feel better the morning after a few drinks, but they do not impact the rate at which your body absorbs alcohol.

Unless you have your own breathalyser device, there is no way of knowing for sure what your blood alcohol level is.

An empty beer glass in a dark room
How does alcohol impact your driving ability?

There is a good reason why the law punishes people who drink and drive. Alcohol slows down reaction times, impairs judgement and reduces co-ordination.

Drinking makes it harder for your eyesight to adjust to headlights, to judge depth and to notice hazards in the road ahead.

For example, if a hazard presents itself in the road ahead of you, if you have been drinking you will be slower to notice it, slower to decide what to do about it and take the physical action to put your response into effect. Even if your response is slowed by a second or two, this can make a crucial difference.

Alcohol can also create a false sense of confidence, making drivers more likely to take risks. Even a normally careful driver can believe they have the car under control, when their ability is, in reality, impaired by alcohol.

This is why it’s not safe to drive based on whether you feel ok – your perception of your ability is affected by what you drink.

According to road safety campaigners Brake, when you have a blood alcohol level of 50-80ml (still within the legal limit in England and Wales) you are six times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash compared to someone with a zero blood alcohol level.

With a blood alcohol level of 20-50mg you are three times more likely to die on the road, and even with a 10mg blood alcohol level you are 46% more likely to be at fault in a road collision.

The human cost of drink driving

In 2019, around 280 people were killed on UK roads in drink-driving incidents, a sharp increase of 17% on the previous year. The death toll represents 16% of all road accident fatalities.

A further 7,860 people were killed or injured in a collision in which at least one driver was over the legal alcohol limit.

The damage caused by road collisions is immense. Whether it’s a family losing a loved one or someone having a life-altering injury, the consequences of drink-driving offences can endure for years or even lifetimes.

Over time, attitudes towards drink driving have changed. In 1979, 26% of all road deaths occured in accidents where at least one driver was over the legal limit; by 1989 this fell to 15%. Today’s level is 12-18%.

Campaigners are calling for a reduction in the UK’s permitted blood alcohol level as well as measures such as mandatory police breath testing, which would enable the police to test drivers’ breath without requiring the current legal tests.

There is a good reason why the law punishes people who drink and drive. Alcohol slows down reaction times, impairs judgement and reduces co-ordination.

A person drinking from a beer bottle whilst driving
How does drink driving impact your finances?

Training provider IAM RoadSmart has calculated that the cost of being convicted of a drink-driving offence can be as high as £70,000.

This includes fines imposed by a court (£5,000), legal fees (£11,000), increased car insurance premiums (£13,500), the cost of finding alternative transport (£2,000) and potential loss of earnings (£38,500) if a conviction impacts your ability to earn.

After a drink-driving conviction, you can expect your insurance premiums to go up significantly. On top of this, you are likely to lose your no-claims discount, pushing up the cost of insurance further.

If you have another car insurance risk factor, such as being young, in a riskier profession or living in a high crime area, this could impact the increase in your insurance premiums.

The reason why insurers penalise people who have been found drink driving is that this is a big red flag that suggests a driver is a risk-taker. Insurers accept responsibility to pay out if their policyholder is involved in an accident.

If evidence suggests an individual is willing to drink alcohol and then drive, an insurer will want more money to take on this higher risk. Black box insurance can be a way of proving to an insurer that you are a careful, low-risk driver.

Insurance policies commonly exclude paying out to policyholders where loss or injury occurs as a result of consuming drink or drugs.

In the event of an incident, even if you have comprehensive cover an insurer may pay out to a third party but could refuse to cover any losses suffered by the insured person if they were over the legal limit.

Drink-driving convictions remain on your record for a minimum of four years, but 11 years is more common. While the conviction remains on your record, insurers will ask for much higher premiums in order to insure you and they are also likely to require you to pay a higher excess.

Which groups are most likely to drink drive?

According to government data, drivers are male in 80% of all drink-drive accidents, but account for only 66% of casualties. Women are less likely to drink drive but experience a disproportionately high level of injuries and fatalities (34%).

Certain professions are also associated with a higher level of drink driving. Male-dominated jobs within the building trade make up 7 out of 10 of the professions most likely to be found drink driving. Mature students are the most likely professionals to drink drive, with a conviction rate of 5.6 drivers with convictions per 1,000.

The next most risky roles are scaffolders, groundworkers, labourers, roofers, plasterers, and bricklayers. Mature students and servicemen are also more likely to drink drive.

The professions with the lowest level of drink driving were police officers; just 0.026 per 1,000 police have a record. School students, taxi drivers, midwives and paramedics also feature in the low-risk list.

Training provider IAM RoadSmart has calculated that the cost of being convicted of a drink-driving offence can be as high as £70,000.

A person sitting behind the wheel of a car opening a bottle of beer
How to avoid drink driving

The problem with drink driving is that alcohol can make us misjudge our own capabilities.

However much someone might say they would never drink drive, if you pop out in the car for one drink with friends, then have a few more, by the end of the evening your judgment might be so impaired that you think it’s a good idea to get behind the wheel.

If you are a young person, it’s wise to be extra careful during your first years of driving and simply avoid driving on social occasions with friends.

Statistics show that young drivers are at most risk when driving with friends in their vehicle, late in the evening. Even if you do not drink yourself, a car full of noisy mates can be enough to distract you from hazards and you’re more likely to encounter other drunk drivers at night.

It’s a good idea to always plan your transport so you are not tempted to drink drive. If you do take the car then have a few drinks, use a taxi or public transport rather than your own car to get home.

See our top tips for first time drivers for more pointers on how to stay safe when you’re starting out on the road.

How black box insurance can help bring down the cost of premiums

Telematic or black box insurance can be very useful if you are struggling to cope with increased motoring costs after a drink-driving conviction. Black box insurance gives you the chance to prove you have learned your lesson and can now be trusted to drive safely.

Insurance from Smartdriverclub works by monitoring your driving behaviours and pricing your insurance premiums accordingly. When you sign up for telematics insurance, you are provided with a Smartplug™ device that simply fits in your car.

Coupled with our free-to-download app, we measure key factors such as how you accelerate, brake, steer and whether you commonly drive late at night.

Your driving data is fed back to Smartdriverclub, who use it to build a picture of what level of risk you truly represent. If you show that you are a careful driver, your insurance premiums for the following year could be reduced.

You can even monitor your own performance using a smartphone app that gives you access to data about your driving style, plus tips on how you can improve.

Get a quick quote for black box insurance today.