The man who invented the breathalyser more than 50 years ago was called Robert Borkenstein, a former policeman who had risen from the ranks to become head of the Department of Forensic Studies at Indiana University. He was very proud of his achievement. ‘If we can make life better simply by controlling alcohol, that’s a very small price to pay,’ he once said. ‘My whole life’s work has been spent trying to make life better for people.’ Well, he didn’t make it better for me. I lost my driving licence in September last year after failing a breath test in Buckinghamshire. Having a flat tyre on my way home from a Sunday birthday celebration, I pulled into a lay-by on a country road and dozed off at the wheel while awaiting the arrival of the AA. A passing member of the public — perhaps a good citizen fearing I was dead, or perhaps not — called the police. As a result I was 11 months off the road. I have been driving again now for a couple of months, but the price you pay for failing a breath test far exceeds that prescribed by the law. The cost of car insurance, if it’s granted you at all, is liable to rise dramatically; and, scandalously in my view, even the charge for applying for a new driving licence is substantially higher if the reason you lost the previous one had to do with alcohol.
One doesn’t expect sympathy for failing the breath test. It is an offence that attracts almost universal opprobrium and usually has the word ‘shame’ attached to it in tabloid headlines. But some perspective is required. Britain has fewer road deaths by number of cars than any of the 27 countries in the European Union, apart from Malta.