Consumer Watch: Zero-tolerance drunk driving law a ‘smokescreen’
Cape Town - Up to 60% of road traffic deaths in South Africa are linked to alcohol consumption, according to a recent World Health Organization Global Status Report on Road Safety, which the Transport Department hopes to stem with the introduction of a 0% detectable blood alcohol concentration (BAC) law.
It’s well-intentioned but a low-hanging fruit, because changing the regulations will not change attitudes on the road or translate into behaviour change, warns the Automobile Association (AA), while a leading academic says it also poses a threat to teetotaller motorists.
If adopted, the National Road Traffic Amendment Bill could see the introduction of the new drunk-driving law by December, which will impose stricter conditions on drivers with the introduction of the 0% legal blood-alcohol limit. This is a departure from the previous government regulations allowing for alcohol levels of 0.05% per 100ml in a blood sample and a legal breath alcohol limit of less than 0.24mg/1 000 ml.
The lowering of the legal limit is seen in the context of a road death crisis that sees around 14 000 people dying on our roads every year.
For road users, the 0% blood alcohol limit means that insurers will be within their rights to reject any claim where alcohol has been detected – which could mean after taking some over-the-counter medications; eating foods such as bread, sauerkraut, balsamic vinegar, vanilla extract); drinking low-alcohol beverages such as kombucha; and using personal products such as mouthwashes that will have no material effect on driving ability but could result in a criminal record.
It would also hurt the ability of wine enthusiasts and professional tasters such as oenologists, sommeliers and merchants to evaluate wine because even when spitting, which is essential to the assessment process, a traceable amount of alcohol is inevitably absorbed by the body and can tip breathalyser readings.
Data from the demerit system will allow the insurance industry to identify high-risk drivers, which will also increase their premiums, says Wynand van Vuuren, King Price’s customer experience partner. “There needs to be an awareness that the one beer or glass of wine we were so comfortable having before, now pushes us over the limit and this will have dire consequences,” he said.
The AA is not convinced that changing the regulations will have a meaningful impact on behaviour: it says drinking and driving can be more effectively combated by reducing the allowable alcohol limits for drivers, and that the courts should impose tougher sentences on offenders.
The current enforcement of drunk drivers will not stop those who regularly exceed the limits because there are zero consequences for their actions, says AA spokesperson Layton Beard. And a 0% BAC limit will not change this behaviour. The association has proposed that the 0.05% limit be reduced to 0.02%.
“Reducing the blood alcohol limit to zero will not solve the problem of road deaths in South Africa if it is not supported by a thorough, scientific diagnosis of the problem of drink driving with proper statistics which back such a move,” said Beard.
“Behavioural change is needed to solve this problem and that requires proper enforcement of existing laws, and more intensive education of the dangers of drunk driving, both of which do not currently occur.”
Emeritus Professor of Private Law at the University of Pretoria, Professor Hennie Klopper, who heads up the solutions team of the Association for the Protection of Road Accident Victims, says 26 countries have adopted 0% alcohol laws, with very few in the West.
“Those that have 0%, apply to young drivers only, for example Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Canada, Italy and Japan.”
Klopper says BAC levels are limited to between 0.02% to 0.08%, in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland and currently, SA. For good reason: he says ingesting non-alcoholic substances may introduce alcohol into the bloodstream, which gives a false indication of alcohol consumption.
“The higher value (ranging from 0.02 - 0.08%) is a safety mechanism to protect the motorist against possible unwarranted prosecution while having no substantive effect on driving ability. In the South African context where bribery and corruption is a fact of life, introducing 0.00% BAC does not seem to be a very good idea and may expose motorists to unwanted and unwarranted prosecution.”
There is also no conclusive evidence that the difference between blood alcohol of 0.02% and 0.05 results in a significant, measurable difference in driver behaviour, which would imply that the same should hold true for a reduction from 0.05 to 0.00, he notes.
Banning alcohol for drivers also does not account for the fact that in about half of our road deaths, blood alcohol levels exceed the current level of 0.05%: Of these, at least 38% are pedestrians. In Scotland, research showed that a reduction of BAC had no effect on the number of road crashes.
In 1996, when the BAC limit was lowered from 0.08% to 0.05% in South Africa, road deaths rose steadily from 10.256 in 1996 to 14 050 in 2017.
With only around 18 000 full-time national traffic officers, South Africa has a shortfall of more than 100 000 officers to police 12 million registered motor vehicles on the roads.
“Apart from the apparent shortage of trained traffic officers, South Africa’s traffic law enforcement is seriously wanting,” Klopper said.
“The WHO rates South African general traffic law enforcement at 30% and BAC enforcement in particular, at 25%. Politicians seem to be seduced into believing that problems may be finally resolved simply by introducing and/or changing new laws.”
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.
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