Thousands of dangerous drink-drivers are reoffenders

Anish Patel, whose wife was killed by a drink driver: "Something has to be done"

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As new figures show the number of people killed in drink-driving crashes rose by 17%, the BBC has discovered that thousands of drink-drivers are repeat offenders.

A fifth of those on a DVLA "high-risk register" have been on it before.

There are calls for more stringent checks before offenders are given back their licences.

The government said it had tightened up rules, and drivers now had to prove they were no longer alcohol-dependent.

Drink-drivers who are more than two and a half times over the legal limit, who have two or more drink-drive offences within a 10-year period or who refuse to give breath, blood or urine samples, are classed by the DVLA as "high-risk offenders".

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC discovered there are currently 230,149 banned drivers on the DVLA's scheme and of these, 42,207 drivers had been on it before.

Their licences had been returned because they were considered safe to drive when their initial ban expired.

But under rules introduced in June, when a ban expires, offenders can reapply for their licence only when they have passed a medical test to prove they are no longer alcohol-dependent.

However, this will apply only to new offenders - those convicted earlier can drive after reapplying for their driving licence.

Provisional figures released on Thursday show that 280 people were killed in drink-drive accidents in 2012, an increase of about 17% compared with 2011. This accounts for 16% of all road deaths in Britain. Overall, deaths were down 8% on 2011, at 1,754.

Police and road safety campaigners say the system of dealing with drink-drivers needs to be re-examined.

'Bitter experience'

Insp Richard Auty, who has investigated collisions for the Metropolitan Police for 17 years, said he was surprised by the DVLA figure, adding that it was "quite large".

He expressed doubts that the new testing system would address the problem.

"I suspect from the people that I've dealt with that whilst it will deal with the worst offenders, the binge drinkers that are able to control it will clearly not turn up to a medical drunk, so it won't effectively deal with those people. So I would suggest a mandatory driving test or extended driving test before you get your licence back would be a much greater deterrent."

In 2009, Anish Patel's wife, Catriona, 39, was killed by a serial offender while cycling to work. She was crushed under the wheels of his lorry outside Oval tube station in south London.

The lorry that killed Catriona Patel The driver of this lorry who killed Catriona Patel had been on a drinking binge the night before. He was jailed for seven years.

The driver had three previous drink-driving convictions, had been disqualified 20 times and had three previous convictions for reckless driving.

Mr Patel said: "It was just a normal day and a few phone calls later and hours later your whole life gets turned upside down and changed forever. She was my best friend, she was the love of my life, she was my soulmate, we did absolutely everything together."

He felt angry and bitter when he learned about the driver's previous convictions.

"I just thought the biggest thing that shouldn't have happened that day was him being on the road and driving a 40-tonne tipper truck fully laden through one of the busiest junctions through central London.

"These people obviously are not operating by the same rules of the vast majority of the population operate by and I think that there has to be something done about serial offenders. It is too common an occurrence that people get convicted of drink-driving and they are back on the road either illegal or unfortunately legally. "

'Get carried away'

Johnny, a former serial drink-driver who stopped drinking through Alcoholics Anonymous, was caught three times in nine weeks.

He was banned for two years and continued to drink-drive for 15 years but was never caught again.

He said: "I always thought of the consequences but unfortunately just the following morning. I was just going out for one or two drinks, get a bit carried away and invariably I'd end up drink-driving.

"I'm not convinced that a tougher sentence would have made any difference. How much tougher do you want it to be? You're going to lose your liberty, you're going to lose your job, you're going to lose your home. You're going to lose everything basically if you do it again. That never stopped me from driving."

Amy Aeron-Thomas, executive director of RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, said it was time to review driving bans and increase the number of breathalyser tests.

"There is public support for a five-year ban for first-time offenders. Now you are talking about repeat offenders, big-risk offenders - they deserve lengthy driving bans if not losing their licence permanently.

"We know with the decrease in road policing there are fewer breathalyser tests being given so there is a greater chance of them getting away with it."

Road Safety Minister Stephen Hammond said: "Drink-drivers are a menace and it is right that we do everything we can to keep the most high-risk offenders off the road.

"That is why we have tightened up the rules which mean that they now have to take medical tests to prove they are no longer alcohol-dependent before being allowed to drive."

You can hear more on this report on BBC Radio 4's World at One at 13:00, or listen to it online here.

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