50 years ago, the first public information announcement was broadcast into the nation’s homes warning drivers “if he’s been drinking, don’t let him drive – don’t ask a man to drink and drive”. The seasonal drink drive campaign would go on to become a staple of Christmas, appearing each November to warn drivers of the perils of getting behind the wheel of their car after a festive tipple.
Against a montage of black and white images from office parties, the voice-over in the first ever drink-drive campaign video announced: “4 single whiskies and the risk of accidents can be twice as great, 6 singles and the risk can be 6 times as great, 8 and the risk can be 25 times as great”. This was at a time when having ‘one for the road’ was the thing to do and half of male drivers admitted drink driving on a weekly basis.
It had been an offence to be found drunk in charge of any mechanically propelled vehicle since 1925 but it wasn’t until 1962 with the introduction of the Road Traffic Act, that the possibility of using blood, urine or breath for alcohol analysis was considered as a scientific measure of fitness to drive.
Successful drink driving prosecutions relied heavily on subjective tests that would see drivers on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol being asked to stand on one leg, or walk in a straight line, along with observations of police doctors and witness statements.
Following royal assent of the Road Safety Act 1967, breathalysers were, for the first time, legally allowed to be used as a method of estimating a driver’s alcohol concentration at the roadside, In addition, a defined blood alcohol ethanol concentration (80mg%) was introduced, which if exceeded an individual would be committing an offence.
Initially, breathalysers were used to justify the arrest of a driver suspected to be under the influence of alcohol before evidential blood or urine samples were taken at the police station. For the measurements of alcohol intoxication to be accepted as legal evidence they needed to be accurate and legally traceable. Standard solutions of aqueous ethanol were developed to calibrate instruments used for measuring alcohol levels, with certified reference materials (CRM) used to assign concentration values to the standard solutions. This ensured that the measurements would be accepted in court.
The maximum legal blood alcohol limit in the UK was set at 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood or the equivalent of 107 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine and the campaign began to challenge attitudes towards drink driving.
Fast forward 50 years to 5 December 2014 and the legal blood alcohol limit in Scotland has been reduced to 50 milligrammes of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood (equivalent to 22 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitre of breath, 67 milligrammes per 100 millilitre of urine) bringing it in line with most other European countries. Until the change, Scotland had the same limit as the rest of Britain.
Through a combination of enforcement of the drink drive limits and road safety campaigning, road deaths attributed to drink driving have fallen in the UK from 1,640 in 1979 (when the first figures were available) to 230 in 2012. The new lower limit in Scotland has been billed as a direct attempt to further reduce these deaths.
LGC has a role to play in the campaign to reduce drink drive fatalities. In its capacity as the UK’s designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bio-measurements, LGC has produced a range of certified reference materials (CRMs) for ethanol in water including concentrations of 50 and 67 milligrammes of ethanol per 100 millilitres – in line with the new Scottish limits for blood and urine alcohol concentrations respectively.
These CRMs have been bought by forensic laboratories for use when carrying out analytical measurements. They can be used for the calibration and validation of methods for the determination of ethanol in biological fluids, and have been produced under LGC’s ISO Guide 34 accreditation for the production of reference materials.
The reference materials meet the stringent technical guidelines of European Reference Materials (ERM®) status and the data has been accepted as complying with the principles laid down in the Technical Guidelines of the ERM co-operation agreement between LGC, the European Commission’s Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) and the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM).
There is no fool-proof way of drinking and staying under the drink drive limit. Alcohol affects people differently and it is very difficult to provide an accurate estimate of how much alcohol the average person can consume and remain within the legal limits. Factors including your weight, age, sex and metabolism, the type and amount of alcohol you’re drinking, what you’ve eaten recently and your stress levels at the time all play a part. Experts advise that the safest way to ensure that you are not over the limit is to drink no alcohol. As the 2014 drink drive campaign declares 230 deaths a year is still too many!
Visit LGC Standards for information on the range of CRMs:
ERM-AC401 Aqueous Ethanol 80 mg/100 mL
ERM-AC402 Aqueous Ethanol 107 mg/100 mL
ERM-AC403 Aqueous Ethanol 200 mg/100 mL
ERM-AC409 Aqueous Ethanol 20 mg/100 mL
ERM-AC510 Aqueous Ethanol 50 mg/100 mL
ERM-AC511 Aqueous Ethanol 67 mg/100 mL
If requested, we also have the capability to produce and certify a material at any level between 20 – 600 ethanol / 100mL