Unfair cop, Offisher: a provocative and sobering story from one writer who lost his driver's licence

Be careful this Christmas. The police say they plan to breathalyse more drivers than ever before during this year's holiday festivities.

Last Christmas, they stopped and breathalysed 183,397 drivers in England and Wales; but this year they are determined to do better.

According to Adam Briggs, Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police and England's leading road safety enforcer, people mistakenly think 'they have to be involved in a collision or commit an offence to be stopped and breathalysed.

Gary cartoon of drink-driving

'This is not the case, and our aim is to test more drivers than ever before during this campaign,' he said. It was 'only a matter of time' before every drink-drive offender would be caught.

You have to be quite old to remember when there was no such thing as a breathalyser. The device was invented in 1954 by American policeman Robert Borkenstein, who had risen from the ranks to become head of the Department of Forensic Studies at Indiana University.

But it took more than a decade for it to reach Britain, where it was by no means universally welcomed.

Anne Fleming, the widow of author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, was particularly incensed. 'This is outrageous,' she said. 'I can only drive when I'm drunk.'

But Mr Borkenstein was proud of his invention. 'If we can make life better simply by controlling alcohol, that's a very small price to pay,' he said. 'My whole life's work has been spent trying to make life better for people.'

Alexander Chancellor lost his licence for 11 months after failing a breath test in September last year

Alexander Chancellor lost his licence for 11 months after failing a breath test in September last year

And I concede that he may have done so. While it's impossible to know how much of the credit for it should go to the breathalyser, the annual figure for road deaths has been declining - down by nearly 1,000, from 3,508 in 2003 to 2,538 in 2008.

As a result, Britain shares with Sweden the honour of having the lowest road casualty rate in the world.

But if Mr Borkenstein has made life better for lots of people, I am one of the exceptions. In September last year, I failed a breath test and lost my driving licence for 11 months.

I'd been to a Sunday lunch birthday celebration in the country near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and got a flat tyre driving home to Northamptonshire in the afternoon.

While waiting at the side of the road for the AA, I dozed off at the wheel and a passing member of the public - maybe a good citizen worried about my health, or maybe just an interfering busybody - called the police.

So I awoke to find not only the AA man asking what was wrong with my car, but also three police officers demanding I blow into Mr Borkenstein's little device.

I was well over the limit, so I was carted off to Aylesbury police station for a further test and an interview. I was then escorted to a cell and told I wouldn't be allowed out until I took another breath test and passed.

Before locking me up, a policeman ordered me to take off my shoes. I had been told as a child that prisoners had their shoes removed to stop them hanging themselves with the laces; but since my shoes had no laces, the reason wasn't obvious.

After a while, the policeman reappeared and asked if I would like something to read. When I said 'Yes, thank you', he gave me a couple of explicit pornographic magazines. Is failing the breath test now seen as evidence of depravity in every area of life?

Quite possibly; for drink-drive offenders are widely regarded as monsters. Anyway, I was left for more than three hours in my cell - occasionally wishing I had shoelaces with which to hang myself - before I was tested again and allowed to leave.

I am not trying to defend drinkdriving when I tentatively suggest that the punishment is often disproportionate to the offence. It is right that an offender should lose his licence for a time, however severe the inconvenience caused; but the price paid for failing a breath test far exceeds that prescribed by the law.

Prevention: The dashboard breathalyser', also known as a alcolock, which is designed to stop cars being started if the driver is over the legal alcohol limit.

Prevention: The 'dashboard breathalyser', also known as a alcolock, is designed to stop cars being started if the driver is over the legal alcohol limit.

The cost of car insurance, if it's granted at all, goes sky-high; it is impossible to rent a car; it may be hard to get a job; and, scandalously in my view, it costs more to re-apply for a driving licence if you've lost it for drink-driving than for any other reason.

Surely the cost of a routine bureaucratic transaction should be the same for everyone?

In my case, there was an additional penalty: the Northamptonshire police, alerted by their colleagues in Buckinghamshire to my offence, decided to take away my shotgun licence.

The decision to deprive me of mine, I reckoned, must have been for my own protection rather than for anybody else's, since the treatment meted out to drink-drive offenders must often weaken their will to live.

The authorities clearly think so, for the bundle of documents sent to me by the court in Aylesbury included offers of psychological support and a pamphlet from the Samaritans.

So how serious a problem is drink-driving? It is, for sure, a cause of many road deaths and injuries - but also of only a fraction of the total.

The Government reports that drink-driving was 'involved' in 430 of the 2,538 road deaths in 2008; but that just means one of the drivers in a collision was found to be over the limit, not that the same driver was necessarily responsible for the accident.

So it is reasonable to assume that drink-driving is behind considerably fewer than one sixth of the total number of road deaths in this country.

And, according to statistics, only 6 per cent of the 230,000 road casualties of all severities in Britain last year 'occurred when someone was driving while over the legal alcohol limit'.

Yet drink-driving is seen by most people as the greatest of all threats to road safety. This is probably because it is one of the few causes of road accidents (speeding and mobile phone use being the others) that the law can do anything to deter.

Police breathalyser being used on a driver

Police breathalyser being used on a driver

The law can't, for example, do anything to stop drivers losing concentration or falling asleep at the wheel. Nor can it do anything to prevent outbursts of road rage, a phenomenon in which Britain excels.

So a huge police effort goes into fighting one of the lesser causes of road accidents. In 2007, about 600,000 drivers were breathtested at the roadside, with 98,000 of them testing positive. Yet drink-driving could not have played a role in more than 5 per cent of the accidents in which people were hurt or killed.

I sometimes wonder if these resources might not be better used in other ways, such as fighting violent crime or terrorism.

But I know that few people will agree with me. A recent survey by the AA found that 66 per cent of respondents thought the drink-drive limit should be lowered. The Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, responded last week by commissioning a study with a view to 'either reducing the current limit, or adding a new lower limit, with an associated revised penalty regime'.

Even at the Drink Drivers Rehabilitation Course I attended in London - thereby reducing my driving ban from 15 to 11 months - my fellow offenders were unanimous in demanding fiercer punishments for drinkdriving, so effective has all the propaganda been.

Once, while driving in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas I saw a road sign warning: 'Drinking whisky, driving risky.' That seemed to me to sum it up perfectly.

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