Drink driving (United Kingdom)

Drink driving (United Kingdom)

Drink-driving laws in the United Kingdom govern driving, attempting to drive, or being in charge of a motor vehicle when either over the prescribed limits of alcohol in the body, or unfit to drive as a result of consuming alcohol or other intoxicating substances.



There are three main types of drink-driving offences under the Road Traffic Acts:

  • Driving or attempting to drive a vehicle while over the prescribed limit or whilst unfit through drink or drugs.
  • Being in charge of a vehicle while over the prescribed limit.
  • Failing to provide a roadside breath test or an evidential specimen of breath, blood or urine when required.

The law takes a broad view of driving. For example, an owner over the drink-drive limit will commit an offence if they help to push a car along the street away from blocking a driveway.[1]

It is a separate offence to be in charge of a vehicle while over the prescribed limit, even without driving or attempting to drive it. This offence does not carry mandatory disqualification, although the maximum penalties are otherwise similar. A person may be deemed to be responsible for a vehicle if they are in possession of the key; the onus is then on the suspect to prove that they had no intention of driving. The car does not have to be in motion and an offender does not have to sit at the wheel. Whether a person is in charge is a matter of fact and degree, but there are two distinct classes of cases:

  • If an owner or lawful possessor has recently driven a vehicle, he was then in charge, and the question would be whether he was still in charge or had relinquished his charge.
  • If the defendant was not the owner, lawful possessor or recent driver, but was sitting in the vehicle or otherwise involved with it, the question is whether he had assumed charge.

Police powers to require breath tests, etc.

If a police officer suspects a driver of committing a moving traffic offence or of having consumed alcohol, or if the driver has been involved in a Road Traffic Collision (RTC), they may require the driver to provide a sample of breath for analysis. Failure to provide the sample without reasonable excuse is an offence in itself. The driver will be required to blow into a screening breath test device, commonly known as a breathalyser, which will give a preliminary reading of their breath alcohol content; if the reading given is above 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 ml of breath then the driver will be arrested and taken to a police station in order that further, evidential samples may be taken. Persons required to provide a breath sample have no entitlement to legal advice before they provide evidential specimens; any delay can be prosecuted as a refusal without reasonable excuse. They may be allowed a telephone call to a solicitor of their choice, or a duty solicitor, at the discretion of the custody sergeant.

The legal limit in breath is 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 ml of breath, although a person will not be prosecuted unless they reach 40 or more. If a breath sample contains between 40 and 50 micrograms per 100 ml, the suspect is entitled to ask for a blood or urine specimen to be taken to check the accuracy of the machine, if the suspect chooses not to request this then the sample from the machine will be final and they will be charged. The limit for blood is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, and for urine is 107 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 ml of urine.[2]

If the evidential breath specimen is over the legal limit, the driver is charged and bailed to attend court. Alternatively, if an analysis of the blood or urine sample is necessary, then the sample will be sent off and the driver will be bailed to return to the police station at a later date, unless otherwise notified.

The majority of drink driving offences are summary only offences which can only be tried in a magistrates court. Only the most serious charges, associated with the serious charge of dangerous driving or where there is a death involved, may be committed to crown court which has greater sentencing powers.

Magistrate's Court sentencing guidelines[3]

The general maximum penalties for drink-driving, of 6 months' imprisonment and a Band C fine (£5000), together with disqualification from driving, and ancillary orders, are practically never imposed. Detailed definitive sentencing guidance to magistrates on each charge, scaled according to the alcohol level and the circumstances of the offence and the offender, including lists of aggravating and mitigating factors, are frequently revised by the Sentencing Guidelines Council,[4] and published on the internet. Magistrates are required to announce many major factors affecting sentence, including any variation from the guidelines, so that an appeal may be made if appropriate.

For lower alcohol readings, the driver will normally receive a fine broadly determined by one or two weeks' net relevant income, and a minimum mandatory disqualification of 12 months. For a reading twice the legal limit, a ban of 18 months is usual, with a larger fine. If over 2½ times the legal limit, 87.5 micrograms in breath, magistrates will actively consider a community order which could involve unpaid work, supervision, curfew, or treatment if the offender suffers from an alcohol problem; in addition a special medical report (for which the offender must pay) will be needed on applying for a new licence at the end of the disqualification period, often 24 months. If the reading is over 115 micrograms, or if the offender has a history of drink driving, then the Court will actively consider prison as an option.

All penalties, such as fines and community orders, are likely to be reduced by 25% for a guilty plea made at the first opportunity; and the prosecution costs will also be reduced.

A Victim Surcharge, currently £15, will be added to any fine. A Collection Order may be made if the offender requests time to pay surcharge, compensation, fines, and costs.


In addition to a penal sentence, an offender convicted of drink-driving will almost invariably have imposed a mandatory disqualification, which although regarded as primarily for public safety may well have punitive consequences for some offenders. The Court has the power to avoid disqualification only where they find and announce "Special Reasons" not to disqualify; in such a case the driver will receive 10 penalty points.

Due to traffic violations reciprocity agreements with the Irish Road Safety Authority and its Isle of Man counterpart, an offender with a drink-driving conviction in the United Kingdom proper will also be disqualified from driving in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

"Special Reasons" can only relate to the offence, rather than the offender: for example, the fact that the driver's drink had been spiked, or that there was a life-and-death emergency, but not a dire effect on the offender's livelihood.

If the Court consider that the offender is a suitable candidate for a drink-drive awareness course, then the disqualification will normally be discounted by 25% if the offender completes and pays for an approved course (about £150, taking 12 hours) within a time limit.

There are special provisions relating to repeat offenders and/or those with very high readings, with the court being required to impose minimum ban of three years and/or revoke their licence until they have passed a medical and/or a (possibly extended and more expensive) driving test.

Motorists convicted of drink-driving receive a mandatory driving ban (more often than not 12 months for a first offence and an alcohol level reading less than 87 mg) together with a fine. The maximum penalties of a £5,000 fine and 6 months imprisonment are practically never imposed. There is no requirement to retake the driving test once a ban is over, unless the convicted person is a repeat offender, has caused damage and/or injury, caused a death or if the court specifically ordered the offender to do so. However in Northern Ireland, any motorist convicted of any drink driving offence is required to retake their driving test once their disqualification period has ended.

The courts can offer a convicted driver the opportunity to attend and complete a Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Course. This is only offered at the discretion of the magistrates and cannot be requested by the convicted person. The Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Course can reduce a person's disqualification from driving by up to 25% - for example, if on a 12 month ban then the ban would be reduced to 9 months.

Other orders

In addition, the Court may make a Compensation Order for any injury or damage caused; and there will normally be a Costs Order, to pay prosecution costs (perhaps £85 on a guilty plea, double that for a short trial).

Further costs and consequences

A driver who privately employs legal advice or representation must pay the costs, perhaps of the order of £200 per hour. Legal aid is not generally available (unless both there is a risk of imprisonment and the driver qualifies on low income grounds). At many courts and police stations a duty solicitor scheme may offer some free assistance, although there is not any entitlement to representation.

On disqualification, the costs of rearranging transport, whether or not disposing of vehicles, will obviously vary substantially according to circumstances. However, there are usually more direct costs and expenses, in addition to the court fines and financial orders.

Whether or not a disqualified driver chooses to pay for a drink-driving course (min. £150 in 2010), there will be relicencing costs if disqualified for 56 days or more: a new UK driving licence costs £65 basic in 2010, increased by any requirements for a High Risk Offender's medical report (£95 licence fee plus £120 medical fee, and the application may not prove straightforward) and/or driving tests (for cars in 2010, £31 theory test, plus either £62/£75 practical test or £124/150 for an extended test).[5]

Once a convicted motorist's driving ban is over, they can apply immediately to the DVLA to have their driving licence reinstated. Those convicted with extremely high alcohol level readings and those convicted of "failure to provide a specimen for analysis" must satisfactorily complete the medical report before the DVLA can return their driving licences to them. A drink-driving endorsement on one's driving licence increases his/her car insurance premiums, and the majority of motorists with drink driving endorsements on their driving licences currently pay the highest kind of insurance premiums, however most insurance companies take little interest or notice of convictions after 5 years and there can be lower premiums for those who have taken the Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Course.

A disqualified driver will have a criminal conviction (which can, for example, cause career difficulties in employment, or complicate U.S. visa/waiver applications).

Although after five years the conviction may often be disregarded for general purposes as "spent" under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, information on your driving entitlement and endorsements is still available to the courts and police on request, and can affect a police officer's attitude and discretion. It will be difficult/expensive to rent a car for at least five years, and the offender's UK driving licence will remain endorsed for eleven years; a £20 exchange fee is payable to obtain a clean licence after that time. Any further relevant convictions during this time can attract more severe consequences.

Finally, local newspapers may well report offenders' names and addresses and court proceedings; if such reports appear on their website, search engines may find them under the offender's name for a considerable time.


On average, 3,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year in drink-drive collisions in the United Kingdom which is the fifth safest country in the world per 100,000 inhabitants. Nearly one in six of all deaths on the road involve drivers who are over the legal alcohol limit.[6]

Drinking and driving occurs across a wide range of age groups but particularly among young men aged 17–29 in both casualties and positive breath tests following a collision. When the government first published statistics in 1979, 1,640 people were killed in drink-related crashes. Figures from 2003 show that some 560 people were killed in crashes in which a driver was over the legal limit.[citation needed] The latest figures from 2007 show that out of a total of 2,946 people killed on the UKs roads, 460 (16%) were as a result of drink driving.[7]

See also

United Kingdom traffic laws



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