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by Les Oldridge, AIRTE, AMIN
Drinking and driving (1)
THE PROBLEM of the drunken driver is not a new one for the Licensing Act of 1872 made it an offence to be drunk while in charge on any highway or other public place of any carriage, horse, cattle, or a steam engine. Nearly 100 years ago one could be liable to a fine of 40s or to one month's imprisonment if one drank too much and then took charge of a carriage or steam engine. Going back even further, the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847 said that the driver of any hackney carriage (in any urban district) who was intoxicated while driving was liable to a £5 fine or two months' imprisonment in default. That such laws were necessary is illustrated by the story of the traction engine driver employed by a sawmills hauling timber who, on returning from a day's work with a fully laden trailer, manoeuvred the outfit through the narrow entrance to the yard and then collapsed blind drunk on the footplate.
With modern, fast-moving traffic the danger from the driver who has taken too much drink is obviously very much greater and in consequence the law has become very much stricter in this connection.
Standard set The Road Safety Act 1967 introduced two completely new features into the law relating to "drink" and driving. Before this Act it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that the drink taken had rendered the driver "unfit to drive" and this term meant that his ability to drive properly had, for the time being, been impaired. This led to all sorts of difficulties The Police had to obtain the services of a doctor to examine the accused. The doctor usually gave the man several tests and then gave a certificate, if the results of the tests justified it, that in his opinion the driver was unfit to drive through taking drink or drugs. This was a task which many doctors disliked.
In borderline cases it was extremely difficult to decide whether or not to certify the man as unfit. The accused had the right to call his own doctor to examine him and often this doctor and the one called by the police differed in their findings. The most important thing the 1967 Safety Act did was to set a standard. If a driver has more than 80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood or more than 107 milligram/nes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of urine the offence is complete. No longer is his ability to drive a matter for conjecture; his driving ability in fact does not enter into the charge, if the permitted alcohol content has been exceeded then the offence has been committed and that is that.
Although the second new feature of the Road Safety Act, the breath testing equipment, which I will deal with later, has received great publicity it is the setting up of a legal standard which is the most important part of the Act. No longer is it necessary for the courts to rely on opinions of witnesses as to the accused's ability to drive, if scientific tests prove that the limit has been exceeded then the accused must be found guilty.
There are two primary offences under the 1967 Act:—
(I) If a person drives or attempts to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place, having consumed alcohol in such a quantity that the proportion thereof in his blood, as ascertained from a laboratory test exceeds the prescribed limit then he shall be liable under summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100 and /or imprisonment for four months and for a second or subsequent conviction to a £100 fine and /or imprisonment for six months. On indictment this punishment goes up to a fine and /or two years imprisonment.
(ii) A person "in charge" of a vehicle (ie not driving it) who has consumed alcohol as in (i) is liable to the same summary penalty but on indictment the term of imprisonment is reduced to 12 months and there is no increase for a second conviction.
A person will not be convicted of being "in charge" of the vehicle as at (ii) above if he proves that the circumstances were such that there was no likelihood of his driving until the blood alcohol concentration had fallen below the limit, ie until he had sobered up. The court may disregard this defence if the possibility of him driving is based on the fact that he is injured or his vehicle damaged. If, in other wor.ds, he has had too much to drink, then has an accident in which he is injured or his car is damaged he cannot plead in defence that he had no intention of driving again.
Next week I will look at the circumstances where this defence could be brought forward and examine the law concerning the breath test in greater detail.