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Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003

Part 4 - Shipping: Alcohol and Drugs

106.This Part extends to any professional and (subject to any exceptions made by regulations) to any non-professional mariner sailing in United Kingdom waters, as well as to mariners in United Kingdom-registered ships elsewhere.


107.Prior to this Act there was no specific legislation to regulate alcohol consumption in the maritime industry apart from a general provision in section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. That section made it an offence for the master or a seaman employed in a UK-registered ship, or in a foreign ship in a UK port or in UK waters on its way to or from a UK port, to endanger his ship or other ships by reason of being under the influence of drink (or drugs). There is no maximum blood/alcohol limit specified.

108.Following the Marine Accident Investigation Branch's (MAIB) inquiry into the Marchioness disaster in 1989, the then Government asked John Hayes to conduct a wider inquiry into river safety. The Hayes Report, published in 1992, included a recommendation that a breath test should be introduced, similar to that applying to motor vehicle drivers which would apply to the skippers and crew of all vessels. Subsequently, in August 1999 the Government announced an inquiry to review all the arrangements to ensure safety on the Thames. The inquiry chairman, Lord Justice Clarke, made a number of recommendations, in particular that primary legislation should be used to introduce alcohol legislation for vessels on similar lines to that existing in relation to road traffic. These recommendations were further reinforced by Lord Justice Clarke in his report of the Formal Investigation into the collision between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle.

Commentary on sections

109.Part 4 of this Act provides for the creation of statutory alcohol limits for mariners, and the creation of alcohol and drug-testing regimes. These provisions largely mirror provisions for road users and safety-critical staff on railways and related transport systems.

110.This Act puts in place an alcohol-testing regime in a similar manner to that already existing in other transport modes. The provisions in this Act therefore largely mirror those of the Road Traffic Act 1988, the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 and the Transport and Works Act 1992. The Act also introduces a drug-testing regime into this Part, which reflects the regime introduced in relation to road traffic by virtue of section 107 and Schedule 7 of this Act. The following table shows the sections of the current Act which are drawn from provisions in the 1988 Acts and 1992 Act, along with a brief description of their effects.

RTS SectionRoad Traffic Act 1988Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988Transport & Works Act 1992Description



and 80(2)

Section 4Section 27(1)Being impaired through drugs or alcohol



and 80(3)

Section 5Section 27(2)Having alcohol in body above prescribed limit
81Section 11(2)Section 38(2)Prescribed limit
83See table on face of ActSee table on face of ActSections 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35See table on face of Act
85Sections 4(6) and 6(5) & (6)Section 30Powers of arrest without a warrant
86Section 6(6)Section 30(3) and 30(4)Right of entry
Section 78: Professional staff on duty

111.If a fisherman is charged with an offence under section 78(2) or 78(3), section 78(5) makes it a defence for him to show that he took the drug for medicinal purposes, in accordance with medical advice or where he had no reason to expect it would affect him adversely. The equivalent provision was contained in section 117(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which section is now repealed.

Section 79: Professional staff off duty

112.Section 79 includes off duty professional seamen who may be called on in an emergency at any time to protect the safety of passengers. Section 79(5) extends to this class of professional staff the defence of having taken a drug for medicinal purposes.

Section 80: Non-professionals

113.Section 80 applies to non-professionals (recreational mariners). The offence created is a “moving” offence, which only applies if the vessel is in motion (in contrast to sections 78 and 79) and the offence does not apply to passengers. Section 80 also provides a power to except, by regulations, non-professional mariners who do not pose substantial safety risks from the prescribed limits and the requirement to provide specimens.

Section 83: Specimens, &c.

114.Section 83 replicates certain provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988, amended where appropriate to apply to shipping, adopting in relation to mariners the same procedures for taking specimens as are applicable to motorists. This section also replicates, as similarly amended, the new provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988 introduced by section 107 and set out in Schedule 7 to this Act in relation to preliminary impairment tests and preliminary drug tests.

115.Section 83 also applies certain provisions of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, to offences under sections 78, 79 or 80 of this Act by substituting navigation functions for references in the 1988 Act to driving a motor car.

Section 84: Detention pending arrival of police

116.Prior to this Act, local bye-laws allowed some harbour authority officials to exercise powers to detain ships whose pilots were suspected to be committing an offence of being impaired by drink or drugs. Section 84 extends this regime to allow marine officials to detain a vessel when they reasonably suspect that a person on board is committing an offence under this Part. However, in order not to affect the operational effectiveness of the armed forces, this section does not apply to ships which are being used for a purpose of Her Majesty’s forces or which form part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Section 86: Right of entry

117.A constable in uniform may use reasonable force to board a ship or enter any other place if he reasonably suspects that he may wish to exercise a power under this Act, e.g. to administer a preliminary breath test. In exercising his right of entry he may be accompanied. This section does not extend to Scotland where adequate common law powers of entry already exist.

Section 88: Orders and regulations

118.Section 88 makes provision for the making of various orders and regulations under this Part. Under section 80 regulations may be made to create exceptions removing non-professional mariners in certain specified categories from the offence of exceeding the prescribed alcohol limit. Regulations may be made under section 81 altering the prescribed alcohol limits. Regulations may be made under section 83 to amend the table, for example, to reflect any future changes in road traffic legislation. Finally, orders can be made under section 84 to designate marine officials who are able to detain a ship.

Section 90: Crown application &c.

119.Section 90(1) and (4) excepts members of Her Majesty’s forces and members of visiting forces (including civilians attached to such visiting forces) from the offences created by this Part when they are acting in the course of their duties. This is because in such circumstances they would be subject, as the case may be, either to UK service law or, in the case of a visiting force from another country, to the service laws of that country. Otherwise, under section 90(2) this Part applies to any civilian person who is in the service of the Crown. Section 90(3) prevents marine officials from detaining any ship which is being used by Her Majesty’s forces or a ship forming part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service.

Section 91: Territorial application

120.Section 91(2) and (3) ensures that the Scottish common law powers of entry for obtaining evidence are maintained in the case of mariners, as is currently the case for car drivers, train drivers and now aviation personnel who may have committed an alcohol or drug related offence. It disapplies provisions contained in this Act giving the police rights of entry, since these would risk conflicting with the common law powers available in Scotland.

Public sector financial and manpower cost

121.It is difficult to quantify the financial costs to the public purse from the introduction and enforcement of an alcohol limit, as well as preliminary impairment and drug-testing, for mariners. Use will be made of current resources such as harbour launches and search and rescue helicopters to assist the police to reach a ship in order to conduct preliminary alcohol and drug tests or the preliminary impairment test. Training to cover techniques in boarding ships at sea by means of helicopter or ship to ship transfers will be provided by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. In terms of testing apparatus, there would be minimal costs for implementation of the alcohol provisions, since the testing regime would use equipment already in use for alcohol testing on the roads, or which will be brought into use for drug testing. The number of tests required is expected to be low, as would be the number of prosecution cases.

122.Alcohol and drugs provisions in the marine sector will not require recruitment of more public sector workers, though there will be additional responsibilities on existing police, marine or legal officers.

Human Rights assessment

123.This Part potentially engages Article 5 (right to liberty and security), Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 5 is subject to the qualification of lawful arrest on reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed or for its prevention. The powers of arrest and detention contained in this Part are considered necessary and proportionate and within the qualification mentioned.

124.Article 6 (which is linked to a privilege against self-incrimination) is engaged principally by the provisions requiring specimens of breath, blood or urine to be provided by a suspect. However, the courts have held that the privilege is not absolute in circumstances where a proportionate response is required to combat a serious social problem. This is considered to be such a case.

125.Article 8 is subject to the qualification that a public authority may interfere with the right to private and family life provided that it does so in a proportionate manner for the prevention of crime and protection of the public.

126.This Part is considered to be compatible with Convention rights.

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