This week marks the 50th anniversary since the breathalyser was introduced in Britain. The roadside device, designed to gauge a driver’s blood-alcohol levels, was first used in October 1967. At that time, a motorist who was suspected of being ‘under the influence’ was required to blow into an ‘Alcolyser’ tube that was filled with crystals. If these crystals changed colour, the driver would then be taken to the police station for urine and blood tests.
In May the same year a law was introduced 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 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (35 μg of alcohol per litre of breath). In its first year the new law was credited with reducing the number of alcohol-related accidents from 25% to 15%. Not all were happy about the introduction of the new law, however, and complaints and threats were made to Barbara Castle (1965–1968 Minister for Transport) accusing her of damaging their trade. Publicans grumbled that their takings were down by one-third as the habit of driving to and from the pub suffered a marked decline. Government research revealed that there were more accidents in the 2-hour period from 10 pm to midnight (around pub closing times) than any other period during the day.
According to the Department for Transport’s official statistics, the number of drink-drive deaths per year has plummeted from 1640 in 1967 right down to 200 in 2015 – a fall of 88%.
“This is a remarkable milestone, and I am proud of the work this department has done to reduce the number of deaths from drink driving over the last 50 years”, said Roads Minister Jesse Norman.
Today’s breathalyser technology is much advanced and crystals changing colour are no longer relied upon. A sensitive fuel cell sensor now accurately measures the breath alcohol concentration. The change in attitudes to drink driving over 50 years has been immense. There is little doubt that the introduction of the breathalyser and the drink-drive limit helped to form what remains one of the safest road networks in the world.