During my time as a police officer I’ve arrested people for many different things. Week in week out we deal with allegations of assaults, thefts and criminal damage with the arrest forming part of the routine and nothing particularly remarkable.
Arresting a drink driver is different.
It’s almost personal – here is someone who has thought that having consumed drink after drink it is acceptable to get behind the wheel and put everyone else’s safety at risk. Not concerned – or just oblivious to the risk – they’re happy to assume that the alcohol in their system won’t affect their ability to operate their vehicle and as a consequence often find out otherwise only when they’re being brought back to consciousness in A&E.
Taking a drink driver off the roads before this can happen is one of the best parts of the job and I think I’d go as far to say that an arrest for driving whilst above the limit is one of the most rewarding that we make.
We’re trained to spot the signs that someone’s taken to the wheel after taking to the bottle and also know where to look, focusing on the hotspots where we know drink driving can be common. This said, even without this training spotting drink drivers is often quite straightforward. The last one I arrested had given himself away by swerving into the path of oncoming traffic before drifting back into the curb. The one before this had probably thought he was okay to drive and was doing a reasonable job of keeping the car driving in a straight line. Problem was it was night and he’d forgotten to turn on his headlights.
Legally speaking, drink driving is covered by two relevant offences. The first is the most obvious – driving whilst above the prescribed limit – which is covered by Section 5 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. This states that it is illegal to drive a vehicle on a road or public place whilst above the prescribed limit which is 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath, 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood or 107 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine.
The second is driving whilst unfit through drink or drugs, Section 4 of the Act. This means that a person can be arrested if a constable suspects their ability to drive is impaired by the amount they have drunken or something they have taken with the determination that this is the case usually made by a doctor following arrest.
There are also further offences to help prosecute people who have been caught attempting to drive their vehicle whilst either of the above sections apply or are simply in charge of a vehicle whilst drunk or under the influence of drugs.
Following a stop of a suspected drunk driver, the first thing we’ll look to do is to administer a road side breath test which gives us an indication as to whether the person is over the limit. The units are regularly calibrated but do not give a reading that we could use at court and so following a positive sample, we’ll arrest the person and take them into custody.
At the station as soon as they’ve been booked on by the sergeant we’ll lead them through to the ‘intox room’ where we have a machine which does the same as the road side test but much more accurately and which gives us a read out that can be used as evidence. We ask some mandatory questions about the suspect’s health and then require two breath samples to be given.
After a short pregnant pause not dissimilar to a host at the Oscars stalling before announcing the Best Film winner, the machine jumps into life and loudly begins printing out the results. A positive reading means the person is sent to a cell to sober up and then is charged to appear before a judge who hopefully will hand out a driving ban, mandatory points and a fine. A negative reading means the person is free to go.
Both at the road side and in the custody block, the requirement to provide a breath sample is not optional and if they refuse without good reason they commit an offence against Section 7 of the Act and can be charged with failing to provide a sample for analysis.
When I mention ‘good reason’ for not providing a breath test, these reasons are limited to medical reasons. Complaints of being ‘short of breath’, ‘too nervous’ or refusing to give a sample without a solicitor present are not good reasons and are likely to see a person charged with failing to provide.
If there are legitimate medical grounds for not providing a sample, a medical practitioner will be called and a sample of blood taken. The suspect will then be bailed whilst the sample is sent to a lab for analysis.
The Road Traffic Act also contains provisions for officers to force entry to arrest persons who he or she suspects has been driving whilst above the prescribed limit, whilst unfit through drink or drugs. There is a further power to force entry to administer a breath test where a road traffic accident has happened during which someone has been injured.
When it comes to estimating whether you are above the limit or not, there are no easy or reliable ways of safely knowing if it is safe for you to drive. Gender, body mass and other factors can affect how quickly you will pass the legal limit meaning counting units is not an accurate guide to keeping within the law.
Best advice is always to either not drink at all if you are driving, to either arrange a designated driver or better still, book a taxi.
The standard warnings of ‘you’ll loose your licence, loose your job’ etc are perfectly valid and good reasons not to risk drink driving however the real impact is on the families of the victims and drunk drivers themselves who tragically find the lives of loved ones permanently altered or ended as a result.
The impact too is with the members of the emergency services who are called out to the scene of accidents involving drunken drivers and who in the aftermath find themselves removing valuables from bodies, bagging up blood soaked clothing and taking the slow walk up someone’s drive to deliver the worst news imaginable.
It’s because we have to do things like this that I’d encourage anyone risking ‘one for the road’ to think long and hard before they climb behind the wheel – the consequences are very real and often irreversible.