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Cape Town - Tell tale signs of drunk driving, and not blood tests, will be enough to land motorists in trouble with the law as the authorities seek new ways to crack down on the problem before the festive season.
Now, the authorities announced in a joint show of force on Friday, they will turn back to an existing charge of “driving under the influence of alcohol” - rather that the more commonly used “driving with a blood alcohol limit over the legal limit”, which necessitates blood testing - which means drunk drivers could be fined up to R180 000, or face as long as nine years behind bars.
Blood tests are not necessary to secure such a conviction, traffic authorities, police and prosecutors confirmed during a press conference yesterday, which was hosted by the provincial traffic department, the provincial police and the National Prosecuting Authority.
With roadblocks planned across the province during the holiday season, traffic officials will instead be looking out for the telltale signs of inebriation – unsteadiness and an inability to perform simple tasks, such as walking in a straight line or picking up a bunch of keys.
The NPA’s Mark Wakefield said that instead of simply sending suspects for blood tests, traffic officers at roadblocks would primarily search for signs of drunk driving, to use as evidence in court.
The news has, however, already prompted a top criminal attorney and a forensic expert to warn that relying on the observations of law enforcement officials to determine sobriety could be risky.
William Booth warned the authorities that their change of tack would not be without its challenges. There could be a number of innocent explanations for behaviour which could be construed as drunkenness, he argued.
Forensic expert Dr David Klatzow agreed, pointing out that the rate at which alcohol was absorbed differed between people. The observations of law enforcement officials, including that a suspect’s eyes were bloodshot or he was unsteady, would also not be able to stand up in court when challenged by a skilled cross-examiner.
Klatzow’s view was that authorities should instead focus on ensuring that forensic laboratories, which test blood samples, work efficiently.
The decision came after a workshop at the NPA’s Western Cape offices yesterday, attended by traffic officials, police, Western Cape government officials and the NPA.
Wakefield’s NPA colleague, Christhenus van der Vijver, explained that there was a misconception that a motorist had to be drunk before being charged with driving under the influence. All that was necessary was for the State to present oral evidence from the law enforcement official and a district surgeon, he said.
Van der Vijver added that the benefit was that there was no need to wait for blood tests by overburdened laboratories.
There is currently a 12- to 13-month wait for blood test results, he said.
But Van der Vijver stressed that the move did not mean blood-alcohol tests would be abolished. It meant rather that the State did not have to rely on such blood tests for convictions.
Booth warned further that someone could have a drink and get into their car minutes later to drive home. By that stage, the alcohol had not moved through the person’s system, and their ability to drive was not impaired.
On the way home, however, the person was stopped at a roadblock and taken to a district surgeon on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.
“It takes about an hour before the district surgeon examines the suspect and, by then, the alcohol has started to take effect,” he said.
Booth suggested that rather than changing tack in terms of law enforcement, the government could consider drastically improving the public transport system so that people did not have to drive after partying.
He added that law enforcement officials also needed to be trained in the law so that they knew when to arrest.
Over the past five years traffic officials have arrested 800 to 1 000 motorists a month for offences related to drinking and driving.
To date, the NPA has had a 90 percent conviction rate.
David Frost, head of traffic management in the Western Cape government, said more than 30 000 of the 31 323 blood samples sent for testing returned positive.
The change in focus comes about two months after a Western Cape High Court judge found that the State had not proved the blood test results in a drunk driving case, because it hadn’t followed proper procedures.