Drink drive changes: Attwood to allow police to stop without cause

Sobriety checkpoint in Germany
Wil we see Sobriety Checkpoints become common place in Northern Ireland? Image via Wikipedia

Today we have been told by the Northern Ireland Environment Minister, Alex Attwood MLA, that

Great improvements have been made in the drink driving culture in Northern Ireland over the last two decades. Unfortunately more needs to be done. Over the last five years 75 people have been killed and 473 seriously injured by drivers impaired by drink or drugs.

This is totally unacceptable and I am determined to do what I can to tackle this issue once and for all.

I have listened to the public on this. There is widespread public support for a step change in how we deal with drink drivers and I believe that what I am proposing will make a real difference.

His party colleague, Pat Ramsey has welcomed the proposals as if they are fact. However, as the DoE statement makes clear, the Minister is only making proposals today. All of this is subject to agreement by the Executive for legislation to be brought to the Assembly. We all know what a muddle that can be. Even with the Executive’s consent, we may not see legislation actually debated in the Assembly.

On first reading of the Minister’s proposals seem fair enough, but are we sure?

Random breath testing powers to enable police to breathalyse the drivers of vehicles without the need to have ‘reasonable cause to suspect’ that the driver has consumed alcohol;

Does the Police Service of Northern Ireland really need these extra powers? Is the Minister not giving away powers to the constabulary that could be abused all too easily. In what manner will these tests be ‘random’? Or will we be seeing queues of traffic forming where the police are breathalysing everyone – on the basis that they will be able to meet some target set? I look forward to seeing the actual regulations on this issue. Perhaps the Police’s policy will be made public?

And remember, under these proposals (see below) you won’t have the right to ask for a blood or urine test… Not everyone can blow long enough for the breathalyser.

I’ll recount a simple story from my father’s experience. He was driving back from visiting a building site as he was a Chartered Structural Engineer. He was stopped by the police (I think it was actually at the Border between Éire and Northern Ireland. The constable asked him if he had been drinking. Dad answered that he had not. The constable said that he smelt alcohol and could he get out of the car to provide a sample. Always helpful to the police, Dad got out of the car and attempted to provide a sample. He nearly didn’t manage it. His lung capacity has always been low. The police constable thought that he was taking the micky… Funnily enough the reading came back negative. What was the cause? Dad had been working with a particular type of resin all day – and it smelt like alcohol.

Had my father not managed to blow long enough – he was hoping to ask for a blood test. With the Minister’s proposals it seems that that right is going to go. I’m not convinced this is a good idea.

Of course, maybe some member of the constabulary or other helpful person will be able to tell me that the amount of sustained breath required is not as much as once it was.

I am not sure that I agree with there being different rules on this in Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is obviously a result of devolution of powers from Westminster to Stormont, but do we really want to increase the differences between here and the rest of the UK?

The proposals are that:

1. A drink drive limit (of 80mg alcohol per 100ml of blood) was first introduced in Northern Ireland in 1968.

2. In April 2009, the DOE issued a consultation paper inviting views on a range of proposed measures including options relating to the drink drive limit, penalties and police powers.

3. The planned package of measures to tackle drink driving includes:
• New Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limits of 50mg/100ml for most drivers and 20mg/100ml for learner and ‘novice’ (first two years post-test) drivers and for professional drivers;
• A new graduated penalty regime that will provide for fixed penalties for first offences at lower limits and court prosecution for high level first offences or any second or subsequent offences;
• Random breath testing powers to enable police to breathalyse the drivers of vehicles without the need to have ‘reasonable cause to suspect’ that the driver has consumed alcohol;
• Automatic referral onto an approved Course for Drink Drive Offenders unless a court decides that attendance would be inappropriate. While an offender may be referred automatically, attendance will remain voluntary;
• Application of the new lower 50mg/100ml BAC limit to the existing High Risk Offenders Scheme that currently imposes higher sanctions upon those drivers whose dependence on, or misuse of, alcohol presents a serious road safety risk;
• Removal of the right, in certain circumstances, to ask for a blood or urine sample to replace the breath test sample.

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