Rural pubs: the real losers of Scotland’s drink driving laws

As the Christmas stats show people are still drinking and driving despite the Scottish Government lowering the limit two years ago. This year one in 30 of the 19,000 people stopped were over the limit. Annabelle Love takes a look at how much of an impact the drink driving legislation has had on the trade and road statistics.

Just over two years ago the new drink driving law in Scotland came into force – reducing the legal breath alcohol limit from 35 to 22 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath and effectively creating a zero tolerance approach to having anything alcoholic to drink and then driving.

The impact of the change, which came into force on December 5, 2014, on the licensed trade is well documented – and many of you reading this will no doubt have first-hand experience of it. But what about the impact the new law has had on our drinking culture and on the numbers of fatal and serious road accidents involving drivers who have been drinking?

Has there been a reduction in those figures, or is it too soon to get an accurate picture of the current situation? The new law was introduced against the backdrop of Scotland’s Road Safety Framework, which was launched in June 2009 and set out a series of priorities and specific targets for 2020, including a 40 % reduction in the number of fatalities and a 55 % reduction in the numbers of people seriously injured on the nation’s roads.

The Scottish Parliament voted unanimously in favour of the new alcohol limit, bringing Scotland into line with most of Europe. Tough penalties mean that those caught drink-driving face the prospect of a minimum 12-month driving ban, a criminal record, points on their licence and a substantial fine.

But the move also created a schism with the situation south of the Border, where the UK government retained the higher limit of 35mcg, shared only by one other European country – Malta. Before the new law was introduced, police and road safety campaigners said that around 20 people died on Scotland’s roads each year as a result of collisions involving people who were driving while over the legal limit.

A further 90 were seriously injured and 340 slightly injured as a result of drink-driving related collisions in 2013. An awareness campaign ahead of the new limit being introduced warned that the best advice was not to drink at all if you intended driving – and it was soon clear that this message had hit home with licensees across Scotland reporting a drop in takings over the festive season.

Food sales were also affected, with some venues finding that takings from meals were down by as much as a third. In January 2015, pub group Greene King said the new limit had led to slower trading across its 200 Belhaven pubs in Scotland over the Christmas period.

The firm said drink sales in England and Wales were two % up against a two % drop in Scotland over the same period, immediately after the new limit came into force. The following month a survey of 50 outlets by trade buying group Beacon found that sales had fallen by up to 60 % in the first two months of the year and some critics predicted that the new limit would have an even greater impact on the licensed trade than the smoking ban, which was introduced in 2006.

Long-term impact

Concerns were raised about the long-term impact on jobs and investment in the licensed trade. There were comparisons with prohibition, with suggestions that the new law was literally scaring people into avoiding alcohol altogether.

City centre pubs reported a slump in office trade, with a drop in the numbers of people popping in for a pint after work and lunchtime bar sales down as well. Since the penalties for drink driving are not devolved, the Scottish government has been unable to introduce lighter penalties, meaning that a driver who has even residual alcohol in their bloodstream could still face a criminal record.

This, coupled with the fact that the new lower level makes it more likely that people could still be over the legal limit the morning after the night before, has also had an impact on drinking behaviour. Bars and restaurants have found that people now tend to go out earlier in the evening and head home sharp. Customers are less likely to sit and chat over more drinks once their meal is over – but the new rules have also resulted in trends like the growth of mock-tails, free drinks for designated drivers and the introduction of smaller glass sizes.

Rural pubs and golf clubs are among those hardest hit by the change, with many citing the minimum wage as another factor weighing on their business. In June, a survey of industry trends by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) found that 44 % of rural outlets saw their takings fall by up to ten % in the first six months of 2016. This was off the back of a reported 40 % fall in takings for operators in remote areas during 2015.

Calls for change

The SLTA has called for a change in the way business rates are calculated for pubs – currently based on turnover – and for the number of pubs qualifying for rates relief to be doubled in a bid to ease the situation.

Willie Macleod, executive director of the British Hospitality Institute in Scotland says the new laws have changed people’s behaviour – and agrees that pubs and small hotels in rural areas have been hardest hit.

He said, “I think it’s probably fair to say that the biggest impact has been on pubs and small hotels and inns in rural areas, where under the previous drink drive legislation rightly or wrongly people would maybe stop in to have a glass of wine or a half pint of beer on their way home from work and they may well have been within the limit. I think what’s happening now is that people just don’t want to take the chance.

“Certainly BHA would not condone drinking and driving. Everybody is supportive of laws which protect the community from irresponsible people who are going to drink and drive.

“Inevitably however, even with a view that supports responsible drinking, there has been an impact as people either don’t go out or they got out less frequently, or if they are out they are not drinking.

“Our experience is that hotels have suffered less. We are finding that there more parties arriving with a designated driver, people are consuming less if they know they are going to be driving in the morning and people who’ve been at late evening functions are either checking out of the hotel later or staying in the hotel for lunch, so there has been a change in behaviour.”

Drop in sales

Kris Clark, owner of The George Hotel in Inverary, Argyll, has also seen a radical change in people’s behaviour as a result of the new law. He said, “Our customers start drinking earlier in the day and finish earlier in the evening. We noticed probably a 15 % decrease in alcohol sales in that first year. People are still drinking but just not as much.

“We have pushed our check-out time back to midday and, because of living rurally, we also have two hotel minibuses for clients so we can pick people up and drop them home again, which has helped to bring people in. We are fortunate in that we’ve got good food and we’ve got good rooms – the businesses that don’t have that will fall by the wayside.”

Not for the first time supermarkets were among the winners with Tesco reporting that sales of non-alcoholic and low alcohol beers in Scotland were up by 80 % – an increase three times higher than the rest of the UK.

Positive result for safety?

So how did the impact of new law look from a policing perspective? In the three weeks after it came into force, 255 people were caught driving under the influence of drink or drugs compared to 348 a year earlier – a drop of 27 %.

The Reported Road Casualties in Scotland 2015 report found that in the first full year the reduced limit has been in force there were 24 fewer fatal accidents (13% reduction), 98 fewer serious injury accidents (5% reduction) and 368 fewer slight injury accidents (4% reduction) compared with the previous year. However it is not possible to determine the extent to which this reduction can be attributed to the reduced drink drive limit as the information is not yet available.

The data for Scotland will be updated in September 2017 when the true picture will be clearer. Certainly the number of motorists involved in injury road accidents who either tested positive for alcohol or refused a test was already falling, down from 486 in 2004 to 228 in 2015 but the Scottish government believes the new limit has had a fresh impact on attitudes to drink driving.

A spokesman said, “Since the Scottish Government lowered the drink drive limit we’re seeing fewer accidents and, importantly, there’s also been a shift in attitudes towards even having one drink and driving, and indeed driving the day after drinking.

“The reality is that having even one alcoholic drink before driving makes you three times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash. It’s definitely not worth that risk.”

The message is still not getting through to everybody though. Speaking at the launch of this year’s drink driving awareness campaign, Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins from Police Scotland said it was disappointing that so many people were still prepared to cause danger to others as well as themselves as he revealed that 452 drivers failed a breath test between December last year and January 2016.

One in 35 drivers stopped during the festive season last year were over the legal limit or impaired by drink or drugs – compared with one in 50 motorists caught drink driving over the same period in previous year. It is too early to say whether the drop in the numbers of people killed or seriously injured on Scotland’s roads is down to the reduction in the drink drive limit or whether other factors are also in play – and the reality is that it may be several more years before we have a definitive answer.