It's 50 years since the roadside breathalyser was introduced

The first roadside breathalyser test was carried out in the UK on the 8 October 1967. Before then, if police suspected a driver of being over the limit, they had to carry out somewhat less scientific tests – asking them to touch their nose, for example, or stand on one leg.

In the year of the introduction of the breath test, a shocking 1,640 road deaths were blamed on alcohol. Since then, there’s been an eight-fold reduction in the number of alcohol-related fatalities on the roads, despite a dramatic increase in car ownership.

The roadside breath test has a lot to be thanked for, then. Alarmingly, however, the latest statistics from the Department for Transport (DfT) report that 200 people a year still die in crashes where at least one driver is over the alcohol limit.

These stats, from 2015, also showed a nine percent increase in the number of seriously injured casualties in drink drive crashes – from 1,070 in 2014 to 1,170 a year later, the first rise since 2011. Out of more than half a million (520,219) roadside breath tests carried out in 2015, more than 60,000 drivers (one in eight) failed or refused to take the test.

The figures show that men are twice as likely as women to fail a breath test, a trend consistent across all age groups according to the DfT report.

“It seems remarkable now that the new law was greeted with outrage in some quarters, with publicans heckling the then Transport Minister, Barbara Castle, accusing her of damaging their trade,” said Hunter Abbott, advisor to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) and managing director of breathalyser firm AlcoSense Laboratories.

“In the first 12 months alone, there were 1000 fewer deaths and 11,000 fewer serious injuries on the roads – proving that the use of the ‘drunkometer’ was both necessary and justified.”

The earliest roadside breathalyser was a crude ‘blow in the bag’ device which would give a police officer an indication about whether a motorist was over the limit. Today’s breath tests are much more accurate, but suspected drink drivers still have to provide an evidential infra-red breath test at the police station.