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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
June 28, 2010



Drink-driving: Is policy steering the evidence?

A report last week from our friends at the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), who seem to have been frantically busy lately, recommends a reduction in the UK’s blood alcohol limit from 80mgs to 50mgs.

Understandably, publicans are worried about this prospect, though I can’t see it’s going to make that much difference. Drink-driving is now broadly culturally unacceptable, a far more effective weapon against it than any legal limit. Anyone who refrains from drink-driving continue to do so. And the small minority who have proved resilient to both the law and social pressure are likely to continue doing that, too.

A further suggestion from NICE is that we introduce random breath-testing, which could prove bothersome, especially if the tests are carried out in the vicinity of pub car parks. Even if you haven’t been drinking, being stopped by police on your way home for no apparent reason other than that you’ve been to the pub is a pretty unpleasant prospect.

NICE believes lives could be saved by these measures, with estimates of how many varying quite wildly. There was an interesting discussion about this on the BBC’s More or Less, an ever-fascinating show on the unlikely subject of statistics.

In the hot seat was a Prof Alan Brennan, who produced the research last year on which much of the NICE report is based. Brennan works at the University of Sheffield, which might ring a bell. Yes, it’s the same academic institution where all the evidence for minimum alcohol pricing originates. In fact he’s on the ‘modelling’ team that did that one, too.

And like his colleague Dr Petra Meier  he wobbles under pressure. Presenter Tim Harford wondered about the influences on alcohol-related road deaths, such as cultural changes.

“I look at the statistics, not why these things happen,” Brennan replied. “There are many other factors apart from the legal limit.”

And presumably you could say this about random breath testing, too. Or any factor artificially extracted from a whole complex of social behaviours. Once again, this smacks of policy-based evidence.

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