drink driving laws in the uk

Despite there being strict laws against drink driving in the UK and severe penalties for offenders for a number of years now, there are still far too many accidents on the roads caused by irresponsible drivers getting behind the wheel whilst intoxicated. In fact, one in eight of road deaths is caused by collisions related to drinking. One of the main reasons for such a high rate of drink driving could be the lack of clarity around what the laws actually are, in addition to the fact that the laws in Scotland are different to other parts of the UK. For many years there have been campaigns to reduce the legal limit further, with some campaigning for a zero-tolerance policy. Below, we outline the law as it stands today and tips about how you can stick to it.

What is the legal limit?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the legal drinking limit is:

  • 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood
  • 35 micrograms per 100ml of breath
  • 107mg per 100ml of urine

In Scotland, the legal drink-driving limit is

  • 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood
  • 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100ml of breath

What about units of alcohol?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal way to calculate the exact number of units that are safe to consume before driving. Generally speaking, one unit is around 10ml or 8g of alcohol however there are various factors that will also influence the person on the day. These can be your age, gender, weight, metabolism, the kind of alcohol, whether you have eaten and what, your energy/stress levels and your general tolerance of alcohol.

The safest way to avoid taking any unnecessary risks is to avoid drinking altogether; even a small amount of alcohol can slow down your reaction times and even impair your vision.

How long should you wait to drive after having a drink?

This is another difficult to measure question and there is no hard and fast rule. Some studies have found that one unit of alcohol takes approximately one hour to process, which means that a lager containing three units will take at least three hours to get out of your system although individual factors should still be taken into account.

This applies for driving the morning after a night of drinking. There is no guarantee that when you wake up you will be legally within the limits to drive and it can take the majority of the next day to get sober enough to do so.

What happens if you get caught drink driving and what are the penalties?

If the police believe you are driving under the influence, they will signal for you to pull over and request you to take a breath test using a device known as a breathalyser. You are legally obliged to take the test and if you refuse you could be arrested. The breathalyser will be able to bring up a result instantly and if you fail the test, i.e. you’re over the limit; you will be driven to the station for further testing.

The penalties for drink driving:

Offence Fine Imprisonment Driving Ban
Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through
Up to £2,500 3
Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through
Unlimited (at magistrate’s discretion) 6 months At
least 1 year (3 years if convicted again within 10 years)
Refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis Unlimited (at magistrate’s discretion) 6 months At
least 1 year
Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of
Unlimited (at magistrate’s discretion) 14 years At
least 2 years PLUS extended driving test before your license is returned

Depending on the individual case, some magistrates will allow a reduction on the driving ban if you agree to take a drink driving rehabilitation course.

In addition to the penalties outlined above, a drink driving conviction could cause you further problems in obtaining car insurance; employment (particularly for jobs requiring driving) and you may have difficulty travelling abroad.

How to avoid drink driving

The simplest way to avoid drink driving is to just not do it. If you know you are planning to have a drink, arrange your transport home in advance.

  • Use public transport
  • Get a lift from a friend or family member
  • Book a taxi
  • If you have no other option but to drive, stick to non-alcoholic beverages.
  • If in any doubt about your ability to drive, do not get behind the wheel.


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