What are the drink driving limits in the UK and what penalties could you face if you’re charged with a drink driving offence?
Is drink driving a criminal offence?
Yes, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, drink driving is a criminal offence.
Motorists found guilty of drink driving, or being drunk and in charge of a vehicle, face a prison sentence, penalty points, a driving ban and a fine.
Depending on the circumstances, the driver may find they are charged with other related offences, such as refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis.
What is the drink driving limit?
The current legal alcohol limit for drivers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, or 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.
In Scotland the drink driving limit is 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood or 22 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath.
How much alcohol can you consume to stay under the limit?
Alcohol affects everybody differently and even the smallest amount may impair driving ability.
Under the current drink-live limit, general guidelines equate to approximately four units for men and three units for women. However, there is no accurate or reliable way to predict how much alcohol you can consume without exceeding the legal limit. Factors such as your weight, age, metabolism, the quantity of food you’ve consumed, and other variables will affect how quickly alcohol is eliminated from the body.
Remember also that even after a night’s sleep, you still might not be safe to drive the morning after as there may still be enough alcohol in your system to put you over the limit.
The safest choice is not to drive if you have consumed any alcohol, or if you are driving, to consume no alcohol at all.
Drink driving penalties & sentencing guidelines
Drink driving penalties are severe and include imprisonment, driving bans and unlimited fines.
The courts have the power to decide the actual punishment that a driver will face based on the facts of the case, applying the following drink driving guidelines and taking into account related factors such as aggravating circumstances.
Factors that can result in more severe drink drive penalties include having passengers in the vehicle, previous drink driving offences and being involved in accident.
Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink
Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink
Refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis
Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink
Drink driving prison sentence
Due to the serious nature of drink driving offences, offenders face a custodial sentence.
The offence of being drunk and in charge of a vehicle carries 3 months’ imprisonment, while driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink can lead to 6 months’ imprisonment.
Most seriously, causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink can result in life imprisonment.
Failing or refusing to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis can also lead to prison sentence of 6 months.
Drink driving minimum ban
The drink driving ban length will depend on the severity of the offence and any other relevant, aggravating factors.
Drivers found guilty of drink driving face a minimum driving ban of 12 months. This increases to a ban from driving for at least 5 years in cases of causing death by dangerous driving.
The driving ban is in addition to other penalties, such as a fine,
Drink driving fine
Convictions for drink driving also carry financial penalties.
For the offence of being drunk and in charge of a vehicle, the fine is up to £2,500, while for other drink driving offences, the fines are unlimited.
Pulled over by the police for drink driving?
Police in the UK have the right to pull over and breathalyse drivers suspected of drink driving. It is a separate offence for a driver to refuse to take a breathalyser test without a ‘reasonable excuse’.
The driver will be asked to breathe into the device continuously for around 4 seconds. If the breathaliser reading is high, the driver will be taken to a police station to take a further test. If the driver fails this test as well, they will be charged with drink driving.
Drink driving codes
|DR10||Driving or attempting to drive with alcohol levels above the limit||11 years from date of conviction|
|DR20||Driving or attempting to drive while unfit through drink||11 years from date of conviction|
|DR30||Driving or attempting to drive then failing to supply a specimen for analysis||11 years from date of conviction|
|DR31||Driving or attempting to drive then refusing to give permission for analysis of a blood sample that was taken without consent due to incapacity||11 years from date of conviction|
|DR61||Refusing to give permission for analysis of a blood sample that was taken without consent due to incapacity in circumstances other than driving or attempting to drive.||11 years from date of conviction|
|DR40||In charge of a vehicle while alcohol level above the limit||4 years from the date of the offence|
|DR50||In charge of a vehicle while unfit through drink||4 years from the date of the offence|
|DR60||Failure to provide a specimen for analysis in circumstances other than driving or attempting to drive||4 years from the date of the offence|
|DR70||Failing to provide specimen for breath test||4 years from the date of the offence|
|DR90||Drunken in charge of a motor vehicle||4 years from the date of the offence|
|CD40||Causing death through careless driving when unfit through drink||11 years from date of conviction|
|CD60||Causing death by careless driving with alcohol level above the limit||11 years from date of conviction 11 years from date of conviction|
|CD70||Causing death by careless driving then failing to supply a specimen for alcohol analysis||11 years from date of conviction|
Drink driving defence
You may be able to defend a charge of drink driving if you can show one of the drink driving defences applies to you.
These commonly include:
the machines relied on to take breath and blood samples must be maintained and used correctly. While the courts will assume the machines are functioning properly, it may be possible for a defence solicitor to show that this was not the case and consequently the results are not reliable.
This is where the police have failed to follow the correct process, which in turn places doubt on the evidence being relied on to prosecute you.
This is where you can show you consumed alcohol after driving.
Driving on private land
Drink driving requires the driver to have been in a public space or on a public road, as such the court may take into consideration if you were caught driving on private land.
This is where a driver cannot be held responsible for actions committed by way of an involuntary act caused by something outside their control.
This is a rare defence which relates to the driver being forced to drive while drunk, for example, in a life-threatening situation.
Taking legal advice
The implications of a drink driving charge are wide-ranging, potentially impacting your personal and professional life. If you’re facing a drink driving charge, take legal advice to understand your options, whether to plead guilty and accepting the penalties, or plead not-guilty and go to trial to defend against the charge.
Drink driving FAQs
What's the sentence for drink driving?
If convicted of drink driving, you face up to life in prison, an unlimited fine and a driving ban.
What happens if you get caught drink driving first time?
A first offence of drink driving could result in a prison sentence of up to 6 months, or community service, along with a fine and driving ban.
How many units can I drink and drive?
The legal alcohol limit for driving is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood or 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Is 2 pints over the limit?
2 pints of standard-strength beer would typically equate to around 4 units in total. However, it is not possible to calculate accurately how many units of alcohol will put you over the limit as there are so many factors at play, including your height, weight, age and metabolism and the length of time between drinking and driving.
What constitutes a unit of alcohol?
One unit of alcohol is measured as 10ml (1cl) by volume or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol.
Charged with drink driving but not in car?
By law, motorists are not allowed to drive or be “in charge of a motor vehicle” while over the drink driving limit. As such, you risk criminal charges for any interaction with your vehicle if over the legal limit.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.