Is drink driving a criminal offence?

One of the most common questions I am asked by people who contact me for legal assistance is whether drink driving is a criminal offence.

03 February 2020

I can absolutely confirm it is.

It is dealt with in the criminal courts, it is a breach of a criminal statute (Road Traffic Act 1988) and it would show on your criminal record as well as on your licence.

Drink driving laws date back to 1872 in actual fact, when the Licencing Act dictated that it was an offence to be drunk in charge of carriages, horses, cattle and steam engines. Back then the penalty was a fine not exceeding 40 shillings or imprisonment with or without hard labour.

The Road Safety Act of 1967 introduced the first maximum legal blood alcohol (drink driving) limit in the UK. The limit was set at a maximum BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliltres of blood or the equivalent 107mg of alcohol per 100ml of urine. The legal breath limit is 35 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath.

What are the penalties for drink driving?

Penalties vary depending how high the alcohol reading is. The higher the reading, the worse the penalty is. The minimum penalty is a 12 month disqualification from driving - It is not possible for the court to impose anything other than a 12 month disqualification from driving if you plead guilty or are found guilty. You will be banned for three years if you’re convicted twice in 10 years.

The maximum fine you can receive is £2,500.

The court cannot give points or exercise any discretion, they must disqualify you and if your readings are very high it could then result in a prison sentence, even if it’s a first offence.

It’s rare for a court to impose a prison sentence for drink driving and there would have to be some unusual circumstances.

Circumstances which could result in a prison sentence include:

  • A very high reading, causing an accident and damage injury to innocent people
  • Committing the offence at a time/in an area with many pedestrians in the vicinity
  • Driving in poor weather conditions
  • If you were driving for your employment, eg - taxi/lorry driver
  • If you already had drink drive convictions

Are there rehabilitation programmes for convicted drink drivers?

If it is a first time offence, the court will automatically offer a drink drive rehabilitation course which, when successfully concluded, would reduce your driving disqualification by 25 per cent. The courses are conducted face-to-face and are designed to make participants understand the impact of alcohol use in relation to driving and how a conviction can affect an individual’s life. Those on the course learn about the law and are encouraged to assess their own drinking habits.

The course is offered to all offenders in these circumstances and, if you have managed to receive only a 12 month disqualification period, then you would only effectively serve nine months of that disqualification before you were back on the road.

Does medication affect readings and would the courts bear this in mind when sentencing?

Only very rarely does medication affect a reading but people who are caught drink driving often suggest it might, combined with the fact they hadn’t eaten anything that day.

The court generally won’t accept your argument that medication has pushed you over the limit and you would certainly require expert medical evidence in order to rely on this as a defence.

Indeed, the only mitigation courts accept are things like the person who has been caught being genuinely remorseful, cooperating with the police, having no previous criminal convictions, entering an early guilty plea and so on. A clean driving licence will also help your case.

Can I still drive whilst on bail for a drink driving offence?

Yes. If you are charged by the police for a drink driving offence, you will be given a court date for your first hearing at a magistrates court. Usually it will be one or two weeks away. You are still legally entitled to drive until either you plead guilty (often at the first hearing) or are found guilty after a trial.

If you need expert legal advice straight away, try our online tool which will explain your next steps and get you in touch with a solicitor.

All information was correct at time of publication.

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