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Drink drive limits in the UK: What to know

February 16, 2023 by

The consequences of breaching UK drink-drive laws can be severe and tragic, so it’s important to know the rules

Around 230 people are killed in Great Britain every year as a result of drink driving, and a further 6,000 injured, while in Europe it’s estimated that one in four road deaths are alcohol related.

The safest, most responsible, and only recommendable attitude to take is to simply not drive after even one drink, but it’s still important to know what the legal drink drive limit is in the UK. Our guide explains all.

How does alcohol affect driving?

Alcohol affects people physically and cognitively, and all of the effects negatively impact our ability to drive safely.

  • Slower reaction times
  • Slower cognition
  • Poor impulse control
  • Poor coordination and motor control (IE arm/leg movements)
  • Blurred vision

How much can you drink and drive in the UK?

The limits are:

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

  • 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath (22μg in Scotland)
  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (50mg in Scotland)
  • 107 milligrammes per of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine (67mg in Scotland

In Scotland

  • 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath
  • 50 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood
  • 67 milligrammes per of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine

The limits in Scotland used to be the same as the limits in the rest of the UK, but were lowered in December 2014 after research showed reducing accepted legal levels of alcohol could lead to reduced road fatalities.

While health leaders set recommended levels of alcohol consumption in ‘units’, with one unit being equivalent to a 25ml measure of spirits, the legal level for the amount of alcohol you can have in your system and still legally drive is determined using three measurements.

It is impossible to say what these limits translate to with regard to specific amounts of drink. This is both because alcohol strength can vary significantly between different beers, wines and spirits, and because different people’s bodies process alcohol at different rates depending on sex, age, body size, fitness, stress levels and other factors.

For this and other reasons, the only safe approach to take is to not have a single drink if you are going to be driving that day. Also bear in mind that it is very easy to still have have alcohol in your system the day after drinking, to the extent you could still be over the drink-drive limit. If in any doubt, do not drive.

How would I be tested for drink driving?

If you are stopped by the police and they suspect you are over the drink-drive limit they will breathalyse you by the roadside.

If the breathalyser reading indicates you are over the limit you will be arrested and taken to a police station where two evidential alcohol readings will be taken; this is done on a specialist, approved breathalyser, and the lower of the two readings will be used by the Crown Prosecution Service if a charge is brought against you.

You will be asked a few questions before you provide the two evidential specimens, including whether you have had any alcohol, mouth wash, medication, or eaten within the last 20 minutes; if you have, the reading will not be taken until 20 minutes have elapsed.

If there are medical reasons for not being able to provide a sample of breath, you can provide a sample of urine or blood instead.

What’s the penalty for drink driving in the UK?

If you are caught over the drink-drive limit you will find yourself in court. This is likely to be a magistrates court, unless there is a charge of Dangerous Driving involved in your offence, or if you are accused of causing a fatal accident.

There are three common offences drink-drive offenders can be charged with, and the maximum penalties vary for each:

  • Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink has maximum penalties of three months’ imprisonment, a fine of £2,500, and a driving ban.
  • Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink can land you six months in prison, an unlimited fine, and an automatic ban of at least one year.
  • If you cause the death of someone by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol you face up to 14 years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a driving ban of at least two years.

There are separate penalties for failing to provide a breath test, and these are detailed below.

If you refuse a breath test

If you refuse to provide a roadside breath test without reasonable excuse you face a fine of up to £1,000 and four penalty points. You will be arrested and taken to the police station, where you will be required to provide an evidential breath specimen; fail to do this and you face being charged with a further, separate offence, punishable by up to six months in prison, an unlimited fine, and a ban of at least a year.

Note that pretending to blow, deliberately not blowing hard enough, or sucking on a breathalyser machine will be considered as refusing to provide a sample.

Other drink-driving consequences

As well as the official penalties set out above, there are a number of other negative consequences to a drink-drive conviction.

  • You may be fired from your job – many employers have a clause in their contract allowing them to do this if an employees is convicted of an offence.
  • Unlike speeding penalty points, you will have a criminal record, which can impact your ability to find employment in the future.
  • You will find car insurance much more expensive to secure in the future, even for some time after any driving ban has passed.
  • It may become harder to travel to certain countries in the future

It is possible to appeal the length of a driving ban, but this tends only to be successful if there were technical errors connected to your case.

How to avoid drink driving

If you know you are going to drink, leave your car at home and make plans (IE taxi, lift with a non-drinking friend, public transport) to get to your destination, and to get back home afterwards.

It is also wise not to drive the day after drinking, especially heavy drinking; around 20% of drink-driving convictions are given to people who are caught driving the morning after.

How to report someone for drink driving

Fifty years ago, attitudes to drink driving were very different, but getting behind the wheel after drinking is now, justifiably, seen as a very serious offence – both by the police and courts, and society as a whole.

If you suspect someone is about to drink and drive or is already doing so, you can use 999 to contact the police, as the potential consequences of their actions could be tragic. If you suspect the have previously done so you can contact the police’s non-emergency helpline on 101.

You can also contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

UK drink drive limit FAQs

How many units can you drink and drive?

UK drink-drive limits are not measured in units, but by the amount of alcohol present in your breath, blood or urine.

When can I drive after drinking?

This is impossible to accurately gauge. If you are in any doubt, do not drive at all.

How does drinking alcohol affect your driving behaviour?

Alcohol makes your reactions and cognition slower, impairs your decision-making ability, can cause over-confidence, and is associated with a host of other characteristics that make it wholly incompatible with driving.

When did drink-driving become illegal?

In 1930 it became illegal to drive after having drunk so much that you were “incapable of having proper control” of a vehicle. In 1960 this was changed so that it was illegal to get behind the wheel if you were “unfit to drive through drink or drugs”. The current drink-drive limits weren’t introduced until 1967, however.

Can passengers drink alcohol in a car?

It is not illegal for passengers to drink in a car, but it may not be wise.