Wednesday, 28 November 2012

'Tis the season to be jolly - but that doesn't mean drink-driving is OK

Wouldn't it be nice, at this time of year, not to have to worry about drink-driving?

By that I don't mean there should be a moratorium on the enforcement of criminal penalties for people caught driving over the limit. Far from it. What I mean is perhaps even more fanciful: that December would see people truly adopt the spirit of goodwill to all - and refrain from drinking and driving.

Regrettably, the case of PC Brendan Buggie reminds us that some people leave common sense at home when they have a drink. The police officer was off duty but well over the drink-drive limit when, last December, he crashed in Greater Manchester, killing a female friend who was a passenger in the process. Buggie had had six pints in local pubs before he decided to drive, only to crash his sports car into a parked van on the A56 in Ramsbottom. Bradford Crown Court recently heard that his passenger, Justyna Stanczak, died of massive internal bleeding a few hours after the incident.

Buggie was cleared of causing death by careless driving, but convicted of drink-driving. There are many, not least those commenting on the Mumsnet site, who say that the very act of driving while under the influence should have been enough to see a conviction for causing death by careless driving. As a citizen, I have much sympathy with this view, though lawyers will no doubt point out that it is important, in the court process, for the precise cause of an accident to be established before liability can be apportioned.

In this case, it seems that the road conditions were highly treacherous, with a great deal of ice on the surface. If this, though, accounts for the causation of the crash in a strictly legal sense, it is also worth noting that the evidence shows that Buggie did not even realise the roads were icy. Had he been sober, surely he would have better observed the conditions and adjusted his driving accordingly - or, perhaps, elected not to drive at all.

Buggie presently awaits sentencing. He has been told that the circumstances are so serious that he may face a custodial sentence, albeit that he was not convicted of causing death by careless driving. 

This sad story should serve as a wake-up call to those who think, like Buggie, that they’re sober enough to drive when they are, in fact, over the limit. The consequences of one act of stupidity can be as fatal as they were for poor Justyna Stanczak, or they can be almost as severe with victims suffering terrible head or spinal cord injuries, condemned to living the rest of their lives in a vegetative or paralyzed state.

In the UK, the alcohol limit for drivers is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, 35mg per 100ml of breath or 107mg per 100ml of urine. In most other European countries, the limit is less, usually 50mg per 100ml of blood. Moves are presently afoot in Scotland to lower the drink driving limit from 80mg to 50mg - moves which are supported by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. No wonder, when we consider that the UK currently has the highest threshold for drink-driving in Europe. As Alice Warren, APIL's Legal Policy Officer, says: "Lowering the drink-driving limit will reinforce the message that people should not drink and drive, therefore this is an extremely positive move that will improve road safety, and prevent injury and loss of lives." 

I endorse the proposals for change north of the border, and I also endorse APIL's stance. But meanwhile, how about a bit of good old-fashioned common sense? We all know what happens when we drink too much. Some of us lose our sense of perspective after a single drink. Most of us find our co-ordination adversely affected after a couple of drinks, and all of us will experience impaired reflexes after drinking just a small amount of alcohol. It's not rocket science to decide to leave the car alone if we've had a drink, or if we know we're going to be having a drink. And it'd make for a pleasing change if we all acted sensibly during this, the season of goodwill.

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