three glasses of wine cheers

Guide to the Drink Drive limit in the UK

Driving under the influence of alcohol is one of the most dangerous things you can do on the road, and rightly so comes with a range of punishments that could have an effect on the rest of your life, let alone driving career.

Whiskey with car keys and handcuffs

Is drink-driving a criminal offence?

Yes. Driving whilst drunk is a crime and your punishment will depend on the level in which you were caught. It’s not only driving, though, that can land you in hot water – simply having the keys on you with intent to start the vehicle, or sitting in the driver’s seat, while above the limit could also see you slapped with some unwanted penalties.

How many units of alcohol can you drink and still drive?

A unit of alcohol is measured at 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, but there is no rule stating exactly how much alcohol you can have in terms of units before being able to drive as everyone’s body absorbs alcohol different base on sex, weight and stress levels. As such there is no easy way of making sure you stay below the limit. The easiest way to explain it is to explain the levels of alcohol in your system that will result in you being over the limit. 

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the drink-drive limit is 80 milligrammes (mg) per 100 millilitres (ml) of blood, 35mg per 100ml of breath and 107mg per 100mg of urine. In Scotland the rules are even stricter at 50mg per 100ml of blood, 22mg per 100ml of breath and 67mg per 100ml of urine. 

When can I drive after drinking?

The easiest way to be sure that you’re under the limit is to simply not drink any alcohol if you know that you’re going to be driving. While many people may assume that they’re safe to drive home having just had one or two drinks, this may not be the case. It will take approximately one hour for one unit of alcohol to be removed which works out at roughly two hours per pint of beer and three hours per large glass of wine.

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How many pints can you drink and drive?

The number of pints you are able to drink will depend entirely on what it is you have been drinking during your night out. For example, a single pint of Carlsberg or Guinness will see you drinking just under 2.5 units, whereas a stronger pint of Special Brew, Rattler or Henry Weston’s cider equates to approximately 4.5 units in one drink. Again, while everyone is different and it’s best to err on the side of caution; the average person will be over the limit if they drink two pints of regular strength lager.

How much wine can you drink and drive?

Much like pints, there is no hard and fast rule as to a number you can stick to when it comes to drinking wine, but as a general rule of thumb a standard glass (175ml) of 12% wine will have 2.1 units in it, whereas a standard 750ml bottle would be 9 units. Most people would be over the legal limit to drive after just two small glasses.

How many shots of spirit can you drink and drive?

Again, the number of shots you can drink and drive vastly depends on your own body and how it breaks down alcohol. As a general rule a single measure of alcohol equals one unit of alcohol and, lets face it, it’s unlikely that you’ll only be having a single shot on a night out, or that it’ll be the only thing you’re drinking, so it’s probably best to steer clear from the driver’s seat if shots are being considered.

How does drinking alcohol affect your driving behaviour?

Alcohol slows down the brain, so can have a very serious impact on your ability to be in control behind the wheel. As well as slowing your reactions, it also affects your coordination, concentration, judgement and vision, and when combined with the fact that alcohol also makes you feel more confident, you’ll be indulging in your own very dangerous cocktail of self-belief and reduced abilities if you decide to drive after drinking.

What happens if you’re caught drink-driving?

If you have been pulled over by the police and they discover you are over the legal limit, then be prepared to spend a little time away from home at Her Majesty’s pleasure. If you are found to be in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit, or unfit through drink, you may get three months behind bars, a £2,500 fine and potentially banned from driving altogether. If you are caught actually driving – or attempting to – while over the limit you can have up to six months imprisonment with an unlimited fine and a driving ban of at least 12 months – although this will be three years if you have been convicted for a second time in 10 years. These punishments will also apply if you refuse to provide a specimen of breath, blood or urine for the test, even if you are below the limit.

Finally, if your actions result in death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink, you may find yourself with 14 years behind bars, an unlimited fine and a ban from driving for at least two years.

A group of people in a bar toast their drinks

When did drink-driving become illegal in the UK?

Believe it or not, drink-driving has been an offence in the UK for 150 years, with the earliest mention of being drunk in charge of a vehicle referring to horses and carriages, cattles and steam engines as far back as 1872. The Licensing Act of 1872 outlawed being drunk while in charge of a vehicle, and a fine of 40 shillings (about £240 in today’s money) was imposed and up to one month in prison – without hard labour.

The 1925 Criminal Justice Act then made it illegal to be in charge of any mechanically-propelled vehicle on any road or public place, with a maximum penalty of £50 – a staggering figure which equates to over £3000 today) and up to four months in prison and having your licence removed for a year. This was later modified in 1930 to make it illegal to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle ‘while under the influence of drink or a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle’. It wasn’t until 1965 that the drink-drive limit was introduced, and a further two years before it was actually enforced with 

How many points for drink-driving?

Drink-driving doesn’t actually result in any points being applied to your licence, but this is purely because the crime carries a mandatory minimum of a one year driving disqualification. However, if you can prove that you didn’t drive the car and were ‘only’ drunk in charge, then this reduces the risk of a disqualification, however you will likely find you receive 10 penalty points on your licence instead.

When is a drink-driving conviction spent?

A drink-driving conviction will be considered spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974 after five years, and you must declare any unspent convictions to your insurers. Not doing so can result in your policy being invalidated which could result in even more penalty points, a fine and potentially a ban due to driving without insurance. Insurers shouldn’t use any spent convictions to make policy decisions and it would be unlawful for them to do so.

How long does drink driving stay on your licence and record?

A drink-driving conviction may be deemed as ‘spent’ after five years, but you will still have the endorsement on your licence for 11 years from the date of conviction.

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For more information and guides to keeping you and your car on the road, visit our Car Care hub where you can find information on anything you’ll need to know, from speeding fines to how to change your brake fluid and everything in between.

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