50 years of breathalysers on Britain's roads

October 2017 marked 50 years since breathalysers were introduced by police to test alcohol levels in British motorists

The first driver to be tested by a breathalyser was in Shropshire on October 8th 1967, following the introduction of a law outlining the first drink-drive limits in May of that year. In 1967 there were 1,640 road deaths attributed to alcohol, in 2015 that figure had reduced to just 200 - despite the number of cars on the road increasing. 

Under the Road Safety Act of 1967 it became illegal to be in charge of a motor vehicle with more than 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath). Early 'blow in the bag' devices contained crystals that reacted with alcohol in the breath and were simple to use. However, they required further evidence in the form of a blood test or urine test.

Even with the development of an electronic fuel cell alcohol sensor, a second, more precise test at the police station was required for prosecution. However, this required a doctor to be called out; if a doctor was unavailable the driver could escape prosecution. That was until the 1990s, and the introduction of infra-red breath testing at the station, for which accuracy was comparable to blood testing. Without the reliance on an available doctor, prosecution rates improved.

“In the first 12 months alone, there were 1,000 fewer deaths and 11,000 fewer serious injuries on the roads – proving that the use of the ‘drunkometer’ was both necessary and justified” comments Hunter Abbott, advisor to the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety (PACTS) and managing director of breathalyser firm AlcoSense Laboratories.


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