Most roadblocks and random checks are carried out legitimately and for the safety of our roads, but there are instances where officers encourage bribes in exchange for not being prosecuted. Unfortunately, not all motorists are aware of their rights and responsibilities when they are pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving and many fall victim to corruption simply to avoid prosecution - whether valid or not.
The limit and charges
The first thing people should be aware of is what the legal limits are for alcohol while driving. In South Africa, the legal limit for private motorists is a breath alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1 000ml, or a blood alcohol limit of 0.05g per 100ml. This equates to approximately 2x330ml beers or 2x130ml glasses of wine for a person who weighs about 75kg. The limit is stricter for professional drivers, such as truck or taxi drivers, at a breath limit of 0.01mg per 1 000ml.
What many motorists do not realise is that they can legally be pulled over and tested for alcohol at any time, be it during a formal or informal roadblock, or being pulled over by an individual police officer. An officer requires only to have reasonable suspicion of alcohol consumption in order to test - and although a motorist may decline to be tested, the officer has full right to detain the motorist to perform blood tests at the nearest police station or state clinic.
An officer may suspect a motorist of driving under the influence of alcohol for a number of reasons. However, most common are erratic driving (in the case of being pulled over by an individual officer), suspicious behaviour, and smelling alcohol on a driver’s breath. You can be charged based on alcohol testing, but you can also be charged for suspicion of driving under the influence due to reckless driving.
When you are pulled over, the officer should inform you of the reason for doing so, such as for erratic driving. The officer then needs to establish objectively whether or not you are under the influence of alcohol. The officer may not necessarily have a breathalyser on hand and may ask you to do a series of cognitive tests. These involve doing things like walking on the white line or closing your eyes and touching the tip of your nose with your right hand. These help the officer to determine your sobriety and failure to successfully complete one of these tests could lead to being detained for blood tests.
If the officer does have a breathalyser, you will be requested to breathe into the apparatus. It is important to note that if you have to physically place your mouth on to the device, the officer needs to prove that the mouthpiece is new by showing you the closed package before conducting the test. For tests where you only need to blow on to a detector, no mouthpiece is required. The instrument must also be current.
You may request to see the calibration certificate for the breathalyser and, if it has passed its calibration expiry date, you may request a new test. Even so, the officer may still detain you for blood tests on suspicion of drunk driving.
Breathalysers are extremely sensitive to alcohol consumed within 15 minutes of doing a test. If for example, you have consumed cough mixture or a few sips of alcohol within 15 minutes of being tested, your results may show you as being over the legal limit. In this case you may request to be retested following a 15-minute wait.
Should you test over the legal limit, the officer may place you in a holding van for travel to a police station or clinic for blood tests. The breathalyser is only a screening test and most provinces use the result of the blood test for legal purposes. According to legislation, blood tests should be taken within two hours of a positive breathalyser, or initial suspicion of alcohol consumption.
Thereafter, you may be placed under arrest, and can only be released once bail has been posted. Blood test results can take weeks to arrive, so official prosecution and the subsequent court date is typically only months later.
You do not have the right to refuse any of the test methods listed above, although you may request the officer’s identification as proof that he or she is of the law. Legally you have certain rights, such as the right to sanitary and safe testing (the use of clean and new instruments), and the right to a valid breathalyser test.
That said, Section 32 of the constitution states that when an individual does something that affects the rights of a group, the individual’s rights do not take precedence. Driving under the influence of alcohol affects the rights to safety for every other road user and your rights are therefore limited if you are arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.
Ultimately, everyone has the right to safer roads and nobody has the right to jeopardise that by getting behind the wheel of a car after having consumed alcohol. Rather be safe; don’t drink and drive.
* Rhys Evans is Managing Director of ALCO-Safe.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.