Sunday marked 50 years since the introduction of the breathalyser in Britain.
Now a standard tool in traffic police’s kit, the roadside device designed to gauge a motorist’s blood-alcohol levels was first put into use on October 8, 1967, with a driver in Shropshire the first to be tested.
Early devices were relatively simple and needed to be backed up with blood or urine tests. However, before the introduction of the breathalyser roadside assessments really did resemble the movie cliches with drivers asked to touch their nose with their eyes shut, walk in a straight line or stand on one leg.
The device’s appearance followed the introduction in May of that year of a law setting out the first drink-drive limits.
Under the Road Safety Act of 1967 it became illegal to be in charge of a motor vehicle with more than 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath). In its first year the new law was credited with cutting the proportion of accidents where alcohol had been a factor to from 25 per cent to 15 per cent and since then the number of road deaths attributed to alcohol has reduced eight-fold. In 1967 it was 1,640, in 2015 it was 200.
“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,” comments Hunter Abbott, advisor to the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety (PACTS) and managing director of breathalyser firm AlcoSense Laboratories.
“In the first 12 months alone, there were 1,000 fewer deaths and 11,000 fewer serious injuries on the roads – proving that the use of the ‘drunkometer’ was both necessary and justified”.
Since 1967, the legal drink-drive limit has remained the same in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but been lowered to 50mg per 100ml in Scotland. Many campaigners feel that a similar reduction across the rest of the UK is long overdue.
Despite the great strides made since 1967, 2015 – the last year for which full figures are available – saw a three per cent increase in the number of alcohol-related road casualties.- up to 8,470.
Police carried out over half a million (520,219) roadside breath tests in 2015 and more than 60,000 drivers (one in eight of those tested) failed or refused to take the test.
Men were 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 original ‘blow in the bag’ breathalyser was a relatively crude device, using crystals that reacted with alcohol in the breath 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 meant breathalysers could accurately measure 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 1990s 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.