“SOMEBODY will be arrested every day in Gwent for drinking or drug driving,” a Gwent Police inspector has warned – and he has the figures to back his statement.
From January 1 to the end of November Gwent Police arrested 241 people for drink driving and 500 for drug driving – making a total of 741 arrests – which is more than two a day for a period just short of a full 12 months.
If drink driving has become a high profile, and an increasingly socially unacceptable, offence, since the UK’s first alcohol limit for driving was introduced in 1967, drug driving may be seen as one with a lower public profile and which officers have only relatively recently had road side testing equipment for.
“We don’t differentiate between the two,” says Inspector Leighton Healan. “People think it’s okay to have a spliff and they are able to drive but you are impaired and that is why the government legislated to give us the kits to test for cannabis and cocaine.”
While those are illegal substances alcohol is freely and legally available – and for many an integral part of the festive season which is why Gwent Police, and all other forces, run campaigns to discourage drinkers from getting behind the wheel and step up patrols at this time of year.
That there is a legal amount of alcohol that can be in a driver’s system is, Insp Healan acknowledges, a source of potential confusion, though he – and the force – have a foolproof antidote.
“What we say is ‘none for the road’,” says the roads policing officer, repeating the force catch phrase, who advises that a legal limit is no indication an individual may be safe to get behind the wheel of a potentially lethal piece of heavy and fast-moving machinery.
“Leave the car at home and you can’t kill someone. Even if you’ve had one drink you’re not as good a driver as if you’ve had none.”
The balance between how much someone can drink and then drive, isn’t a question the police try and answer.
“People say to us ‘how many is it safe to drink then drive my car?’ It depends on your age, your height, your weight, how much food you’ve had. All these things can determine whether you’ll be over the limit. We can’t give that standard answer; if you’ve had one pint you’ll be fine – we can’t say that. We could breath test a larger person and they’ll be fine and breath test a slimmer person who will be over the limit.”
The officer, who has spent 14 of his 24 years in the service in roads policing, has seen these variables play out in real time.
“Somebody might drive after one or two pints and they feel that’s acceptable however they don’t know until they blow into that machine (if they are under the legal limit). They say they feel okay but are they? Until they are breath tested they won’t know.
“It is a grey area but it (the legal limit) depends on the individual. I don’t think a doctor would be able to tell you. That’s why we say don’t do it all.”
As part of its Christmas drink drive campaign the force conducted road side tests during a December morning rush hour in Cwmbran.
The anticipation wasn’t drivers on their way to work would be over the limit – though Insp Healan, says he’s known of drivers to fail a breath test during such operations – but to raise awareness of heightened patrols. The message has been when planning a night out leaving the car at home can avoid rash decisions.
“Plan ahead if you are going out, arrange a taxi or have a designated driver – don’t put yourself in that position.”
For those who do Insp Healan is familiar with the consequences of a positive test and a conviction which leads to an automatic driving ban of at least a year or more.
“I think it’s important to state we take no pleasure from catching somebody drink driving,” he said. “It’s the opposite, but the pleasure we do take is making the roads safer.
“Those people who are just over the limit will suffer the same consequences in court as somebody who was completely drunk. They could lose their job, they may not be able to pay their mortgage or support their family if they’ve not got their driving licence.”
The inspector says the reality of the serious implications of a failed road side test may be when people find themselves in a police cell with “the door slammed shut” but the repercussions continue: “I can think of a lady who had a particularly good job, I won’t say where but it was well paid, and she faced a (work) disciplinary.”
While the force message is for drivers to avoid placing themselves at risk Insp Healan also says it encourages people to dial 101 if they know of people who drink drive, or 999 if someone suspected of being over the limit gets behind the wheel.
“We patrol in marked and unmarked cars and I’m happy for people to know that. They might think it’s sneaky but we have to keep people safe. My opinion is the majority of the public do support us running these campaigns and stopping people drinking and driving.”
For Insp Healan the real dangers of drink driving are not the loss of a licence, career or reputation but of lives. From January to the end of November nine deaths on Gwent roads were connected to drink or drug driving.
Like many of his colleagues it is a situation Insp Healan has personal experience of in a professional capacity.
He was at hospital when Rhiannon Lucas, from Tredegar, was told her four-year-old daughter Gracie-Ann and son Jayden-Lee, three, had been killed when a van driver, who was twice over the drink drive limit and had traces of cocaine in his system, had crashed into their car on the M4 near Newport in February, 2022.
Driver Martin Newman, aged 41, was jailed for nine years and four months that April.
“I was the family liaison officer. I dealt with the family and I was in hospital when the mum woke up and medical staff told her two children had passed away.
“I’ve also attended at someone’s home at 3am to tell people their loved ones are not coming home.”
For the inspector those moments underline how avoidable those tragedies are: “It’s unnecessary. It’s a choice by someone to drink or drug drive, they think they can get in the car and take a chance but they are taking the choice away from someone going about their business if they crash into them or run them down.”