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Disagreement over new plan to catch drunk drivers

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Cape Town - Traffic authorities and the Justice Department appear to be at odds over new plans to get tough on motorists caught drinking and driving, with the department saying that the change in tack announced on Saturday would have minimal effect.

A day after traffic authorities, police and the

National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that they would switch focus to bring to book motorists who appeared to be driving drunk – prosecuting them on a main charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, for which a blood test was not required – provincial justice head Hishaam Mohamed poured cold water on the plan.

“My view is that the new approach may not make a major indent on the problem at hand,” he said.

The plan includes that motorists will, as an alternative count, be charged with driving with a blood alcohol count over the legal limit – for which a blood test is necessary. Motorists are usually charged with both counts and, in the event that the main charge fails, prosecutors go for a conviction on the alternative.

On Friday, the NPA announced that law-enforcement officials would be looking for evidence to support a conviction on the main charge, because it carried harsher penalties – a fine of up to R180 000, or nine years behind bars.

It stressed, however, that the change of focus did not mean that blood testing would be abolished. In a statement on Saturday, provincial NPA spokesman Eric Ntabazalila said the aim was to emphasise the seriousness of driving under the influence of alcohol.

“We therefore urged officials to collect all relevant evidence to enable the prosecution to proceed on the main count of driving under the influence in appropriate matters,” he said.

But Mohamed said while innovations were welcome, he had doubts about the authorities’ expectations, saying that, for example, if a driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, and the arresting officer and an experienced doctor who examined the suspect concluded he was drunk on the basis of his bloodshot eyes and the manner in which he spoke, there could be an innocent explanation. This could create a problem for the prosecutor, who might be forced to proceed on the alternative count.

Mohamed agreed that the backlog at state forensic laboratories made it difficult for authorities to prosecute on the basis of blood tests.

But he said that a new multimillion-rand state forensic laboratory in Plattekloof should be fully operational by February, and would help clear the backlog.

The turnaround time for the testing of samples should then improve, he added.

fatima.schroeder@inl.co.za

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