Police officers administer Breathalyser
Police officers administer Breathalyser

It’s 50 years since Brits were asked to blow in the bag

Riley Riley

It’s 50 years since Brits were first asked to blow in the bag.

Police carried out the first roadside breath test on a motorist in Shropshire on October 8, 1967.

Prior to that, all you had to do was touch your nose with your eyes shut, walk in a straight line or stand on one leg to be declared sober.

Back in 1967 there were 1640 road fatalities that could be attributed to alcohol.

Since then, there’s been an eight-fold reduction in the number of deaths alongside a dramatic increase in car ownership.

But 200 people a year still die in accidents where at least one driver is over the limit, according to the latest statistics from the Department for Transport (DfT).

Men are twice as likely as women to fail a breath test, a trend that was consistent across all age groups according to the DfT report.

The Road Safety Act of 1967 set the maximum limit at 80mg of alcohol per 100mL of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath) and it became an offence for the first time to be in charge of a motor vehicle with a blood or breath alcohol concentration exceeding that limit.

“It seems remarkable now that the new law was greeted with outrage in some quarters, with publicans heckling the then Transport Minister, Barbara Castle, accusing her of damaging their trade,” Advisor to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), Hunter Abbott, said.

“In the first 12 months alone, there were 1000 fewer deaths and 11,000 fewer serious injuries on the roads, proving that the use of the ‘drunkometer’ was both necessary and justified”.

Transport Minister Barbara Castle watchesThe original ‘blow in the bag’ breathalyser was a relatively crude device, initially used to confirm a policeman’s suspicion that a motorist was under the influence.

A subsequent blood or urine test at the police station provided the evidential proof.

The fuel cell alcohol sensor was later developed, an electronic device that transformed the process of screening by providing the police with a quick test to accurately quantify the driver’s alcohol level at the kerbside.

For prosecution a second evidential test needed to take place at the station using a second, more precise method than used at the scene.

Until the 90s this involved blood or urine testing at the station which required a doctor to be called out to take the sample.

If a doctor was unavailable, sometimes a driver could escape prosecution.

The process was dramatically simplified with the invention of evidential infra-red breath testing at the station, offering comparable accuracy to blood testing – removing the need for a doctor to be called out and improving the prosecution rate.

“There are still more than 5000 accidents a year where at least one driver is over the alcohol limit, and nearly a fifth of drink drive convictions are the morning after the night before,” Mr Abbott said.

“Studies also show that if you drive while having only one-eighth of the English drink drive limit in your system (one fifth of the Scottish limit), you are 37 per cent more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than when sober.

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