Police breathalyser tests on drivers hit record low in 2021


Police in England and Wales administered the fewest roadside breath tests since records began last year, a Government document has revealed.

Data published by the Home Office last week shows that in 2021 just 224,100 motorists were breathalysed, which experts believe is due to the fall in the number of officers patrolling our roads.

Staggeringly, 17 per cent of all tests carried out were either over the legal alcohol limit or the driver refused to provide a sample, which is the highest proportion since 2003.

Take a deep breath: Police in England and Wales in 2021 administered the fewest roadside breath tests on record. Experts say it’s due to fewer officers, while the Home Office claims it was partly down to Covid-related social distancing measures

A total of 224,162 motorists were asked to blow into a breathalyser kit last year – that’s a seven per cent decline on the previous year and lowest since records began back in 2002.

Of those administered, there were 40,861 positive or refused breath tests in 2021, the figures showed. 

This fall continues the downward trend since the peak of 709,512 breath tests in 2009, with 68 per cent fewer last year than at the height of roadside checks being carried out.

Falling figures: In 2021 only half as many roadside breath tests were carried out as there were in 2002, which is the earliest records date back

Falling figures: In 2021 only half as many roadside breath tests were carried out as there were in 2002, which is the earliest records date back

AlcoSense, the manufacturer of breath-testing kits, said the fall in the number of drivers being pulled over and breathalysed was due to falling officer numbers.

‘Separate Home Office figures show the number of dedicated roads policing officers had decreased to 3,886 by March 2022 compared with 5,220 in 2015 – down by over a quarter,’ said Hunter Abbott, managing director at AlcoSense. ‘This explains the drop in tests. 

He continued: ‘The only positive to draw is a marginal increase of 36 officers compared with last year – so hopefully the long-term decline has now bottomed out.’

Studies suggest the pandemic’s impact on drinking behaviour has resulted in heavy drinkers now consuming more alcohol at home than pre-Covid.

‘This increases the likelihood of driving the next morning with alcohol still in your system,’ adds Mr Abbott.

‘If you consume four pints of medium-strong beer or four large glasses of wine, it could take as long as 14 hours for the alcohol to clear your system. So if you’re drinking between 9pm and 11pm, you may not be sober until 11am the following morning.

‘Police should be stepping up roadside tests, not conducting even fewer.’

Rise: Of the 224,162 breath tests administered, there were 40,861 positive results or refusals to provide a sample. This is the highest proportion since to 2003, these figures show

Rise: Of the 224,162 breath tests administered, there were 40,861 positive results or refusals to provide a sample. This is the highest proportion since to 2003, these figures show

The Home Office’s report said that recent trends in the number of breath tests had largely been ‘influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic’.

It added: ‘Carrying out a breath test requires the officer to stand close to the driver, and police forces cited minimising close contact with the public, fewer cars being out on the road, and closure of the night-time economy resulting in less offences as reasons for fewer breath tests being carried out during periods of national lockdown. 

‘Additionally, many forces reported cancelling their summer drink-drive campaign in 2020, which in previous years had led to a small peak in the number of breath tests in June.’

There were 220 deaths on Britain’s roads in 2020 where a motorist was over the drink drive limit, only slightly down on ten years previously when there were 240 fatalities. 

Department for Transport figures estimate a total of 6,480 people were killed or injured in drink drive accidents, with drunk drivers accounting for 15 per cent of road casualties.

Even with 10mg per 100mL of alcohol in your blood (one eighth of the legal limit in England and Wales) you are 37 per cent more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than when completely sober, research shows.

Beware next month: Some 17% of all breath tests carried out in 2021 took place in December, as police ramped up their drink driving campaigns around the festive season

Beware next month: Some 17% of all breath tests carried out in 2021 took place in December, as police ramped up their drink driving campaigns around the festive season

Spike: The 2021 records show that drivers are almost twice as likely to be breathalysed in December than any other month of the year

Spike: The 2021 records show that drivers are almost twice as likely to be breathalysed in December than any other month of the year

December still the height of roadside breath tests

In total, 17 per cent of all breath tests carried out in 2021 took place in December, as police ramped up their drink driving campaigns around the festive season, especially with Britons able to attend Christmas parties having missed out in a Covid-hit December 2020.

That said, December 2021 had the lowest proportion of tests that were positive – and the fewest refused by motorists (10 per cent) who didn’t want to give a sample and were instead taken to a police station to provide a breath test.

In contrast, February saw the lowest number of breath tests (12,828) being administered in 2021. 

This was down by more than a third (36 per cent) on the number of breath tests carried out in the same month in 2020, record show.

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