RETRO: Taking the breath test

Breathalyser November 1967
Breathalyser November 1967
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It was one of the most talked about pieces of motoring legislation ever – the ‘terrifying’ breathalyser.

When introduced in 1967 it was blamed for causing a slump in trade at pubs across the country although experts did eventually admit that it also prompted a drop in accidents.

Here is how it was reported in the Morning Telegraph on October 10, 1967: “Within minutes of midnight Sunday when the breathalyser law came into force, Sheffield police asked two drivers to give breath tests.

“But the Chief Constable Mr Edward Barker, said yesterday that the tests had proved negative. One was asked from a driver involved in an accident and the other from a driver stopped for a traffic offence. Both tests took place at 12.03am, probably the first to be made in the country. As midnight appeared on Sunday, senior officers of the Sheffield and Rotherham force stayed up late to watch for any developments.”

Further afield it appeared to have a more dramatic effect: “The breath test came in with vengeance yesterday. Many popular Derbyshire public houses were almost deserted, some West Country inns reported trade slashed by half, and one Nottingham hotelier said he had seen only a quarter of his regular customers. The situation seemed the same everywhere, and everyone blamed the breathalyser.”

With hindsight, perhaps we should excuse the journalist if they have given way to a touch of sensationalism – after all it is a trade notorious for enjoying a little tipple.

It did, however, prompt Mr Barker to stress that the city’s police officers would not be lurking outside pubs waiting to give random breath tests to drivers. At that point the law only allowed drivers to be tested if they had committed a moving traffic offence, been involved in an accident or gave reason for suspicion that they had been drinking.

During that first year, 112 city drivers were accused of being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle and 97 were found guilty. In 1968 – the first full year of the breathalyser – that figure almost doubled and 238 were convicted by magistrates. In just 10 years that controversial plastic bag helped convict more than 4,000 Sheffield drivers who’d had one too many.

Here is how a spokesman for the Transport Ministry summed it up: “This was introduced 10 years ago and gave every driver such a shock the accident rate went down and the number of people drinking and driving fell drastically. But since then the figures are creeping up because people are used to the breathalyser. Perhaps the time has come to take a stronger view.”