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But poor back-up could blow breathalyser testing

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The Department for Transport (DfT) this week gave police, and motorists, an early Christmas present in the form of new equipment and software to support the annual drink drive campaign.

The new kit will both improve the quality of roadside statistics and reduce the amount of time required to gather them. Unlike other database initiatives, this one appears to involve no dodgy recording of personal data and no further encroachments on individual liberties.

The new equipment is supported by a grant of £2m from the DfT, and consists of new digital breath testing equipment that will not only hold the level of alcohol detected, but also provide police the facility to record the date, time and location of the stop, together with gender, age and ethnicity of the person tested. According to the DfT, personal identifiers such as name, address or number plate will not be collected – unless these details are also required for other reasons, for instance where the individual failed the breath test, or the test was administered following a collision.

At present, the main source of statistics on road traffic incidents are limited and also liable to bias due to their method of collection. The STATS19 data, recorded by police at the scene of accidents, provides detailed information where a serious incident has taken place, but does not include non-accident data. A broad breakdown of breathalyser test results is also available, identifying the numbers passed and failed for any given time period. Whilst both these data sets help with specific analyses, neither are especially useful as indicators of wider trends. The hope is that by collating data on all stops, police will in future be able to target their activity much more accurately, and help the police introduce targeted drink drive checkpoints to strengthen deterrence.

Information, will be downloaded by police on to their local computer network once a month, when the breathalyser equipment is brought in for recalibration. From there, data will be passed on to a national computer system, run by the Department for Transport. A minor question remains in respect of the time interval between downloads - should the breathalyser unit be lost, stolen, trodden on or otherwise corrupted, then a whole month worth of data could be lost in one go. However, a spokeswoman for the DfT said: "These systems have been tested extensively, and there have been no concerns expressed about data back-up."

A spokeswoman for Kent police added: "The new data will be used to identify hot spots and trends in order to more effectively target drink drivers and influence road safety policy."

Best-practice approaches to breathalyser use will be identified, as well as those forces whose use of the breathalyser is less efficient than others. It is possible that analysis will also help resolve the seasonal debate between police and statisticians as to whether a reduction in the proportion of positive breath tests represents good or bad policing practice.

Police frequently claim that a lower proportion of breathalyser results testing positive for alcohol in a given period is a good thing. Critics argue that this merely represents less targeted police activity or even a situation akin to random testing, which is not sanctioned by law.

According to this group, the ideal result from this Christmas’ THINK! Campaign would be a lower absolute number of drivers testing positive for alcohol, indicating that the campaign is working, combined with a higher proportion of positive results in each police force area, suggesting a more efficient use of police time. ®

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