Broadsides: Should the drink driving limit be lowered?

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Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.

We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: Should New Zealand's drink driving limit be lowered?



JACINDA ARDERN


In politics there's often a temptation to let the personal influence the policy. The issue of drunk driving is one of those for me.

When I was 8 years old, someone in my family was in a car accident, along with four of their friends. The car they were in failed to stop at a railway crossing and ploughed into a moving train. No one has ever been sure who was driving the vehicle, they were all thrown too far from the car to know, and they were all drunk.

Roll on two decades and our attitudes to drinking and driving have moved on. In fact, the shift in attitude around drinking and driving is often referenced as one area where we actually managed culture change.

But should we really be patting ourselves on the back?

When it comes to the role of politicians on this one, I'm going to award a D for effort- and here's why. We have stagnated. There are some obvious things we could be doing to improve our stats, but we're not, and that includes lowering our blood alcohol limit.

New Zealand's limit currently sits at 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, something that has attracted a lot of media attention in recent times. Anyone reading the papers a few months back would have seen the odd journalist relishing in a bit of investigative research on how much that meant in layman's terms. The answer? Quite a lot. In one rather unscientific study, some volunteers drank as many as a dozen beers, and were still under the legal limit. That would be the point in an evening where I would tell a friend not to text their ex or walk home on their own, let alone get behind the wheel.

Of course politicians shouldn't make changes based on anecdotal evidence and the odd headline, but they should listen to research. Last year, Ministry of Transport officials requested that the Minister consider lowering the blood alcohol limit, saying that lowering the limit would save at least 33 lives a year and prevent up to 680 injuries. Those figures also come at social cost of between $111m and $238m a year.

But there is a chance that a change like this could have a much wider effect. Our drink driving limits are difficult to understand. We're told that it all depends on gender; age; how much you weigh; how much you've eaten; how much you have in the first hour. How many of you have heard someone try and calculate whether they can have just one more? And how many make the wrong call because their judgement is already impaired when they decide? I'm not taking away the responsibility we all need to take when it comes to drinking and driving, but I do think that we as legislators could make it clearer, and easier to stay within the limit, and given 50mg is roughly two standard drinks, it has the potential to do just that.

I don't want to oversell this element of the issue as being the entire answer. We also have the major challenge of how we deal with recidivist drink drivers. Last year National road policing manager Superintendent Paula Rose said 17 in every 10,000 people in New Zealand were repeat drink-drivers. That is something we need to address. But this isn't an either/or scenario. Labour has put up a bill on lowering the blood alcohol limit to 50mg; the Government just needs to back us and the (roughly) 70 per cent of people who probably have the odd after work drink, but believe our current limit is just too high.

I don't support making this change to our law simply because I have a story to tell, but because I honestly believe that by doing so, we can prevent some other family from having one, too. Whether that is 300 families or three, it will be worth it.

Jacinda Ardern is on Facebook and Twitter @jacindaardern



NIKKI KAYE

Every year more than 100 people die on our roads in drug and alcohol-related accidents. They leave behind grieving mums, dads, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. While we have come a long way in the last 30 years we still have some of the most unsafe roads in the world. Some positive changes, such as compulsory breath testing and hard-hitting advertising and community education programmes, have resulted in fewer people dying but we still have a way to go.

Issues involving alcohol are often treated as conscience issues in Parliament. This allows MPs to have more opportunity to take a more personal stance and vote separately from an agreed caucus position. Generally, my approach to alcohol issues is consistent with my commitment to freedom and my belief in personal responsibility, but I do recognise that some people can cause significant harm to others when they binge drink or drink to excess.

Often our beliefs are influenced by our own personal experiences. If I were asked to vote on whether we lower the amount of alcohol people are allowed to drink before getting behind the wheel of a car my emotional response would be to do it in a heartbeat. This is because when I was at uni, several people from my hostel were involved in a fatal car crash. My friend was in the car and spent several months at Burwood Hospital recovering from severe head injuries. This accident left a family grieving for a lost daughter and my friend fighting for her life. She was told it would be difficult to study and she may never work. Twelve years on, with a bucket load of perseverance, she has completed her degree and is working. However, the injury means she still has to sleep a lot and faces a daily struggle to deal with an injury not visible by the eye so people often don't understand.

Even though alcohol was not a factor in the crash, this accident changed my attitude to cars. I realised that when driving, a minor distraction or bad conditions can result in people being seriously or fatally injured.

However, despite the fact that issues involving dangerous driving are pretty emotional to me, I believe that I have a duty to take an evidence based approach and target those people who are causing harm when considering restrictions around alcohol use and abuse.

The challenge is to better target problem drivers who are responsible for a third of the deaths on our roads. A large number of the people who die will be under 18, as we know a disproportionate number of fatal and serious crashes involve young people. Recently we passed transport legislation to raise the driving age from 15 to 16, strengthened the restricted driving test and lowered the drink drive limit for drivers under 20 from BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) 0.03 to zero.

We have also made harsher laws for repeat drink drive offenders, allowing the Courts the option to require repeat or serious drink drive offenders to have alcohol interlocks. The doubling of the maximum sentence for dangerous driving causing death from five years to ten years has also meant harsher penalties for those people that repeatedly get behind a wheel and put people's lives at risk.
In line with an evidence based approach that targets those that cause harm, we want to ensure that we know the specific impact on the road toll of drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration of between 0.05 grams and 0.08 grams before we lower the blood alcohol limit. We believe there are serious gaps in the data. The data only covers people who fail a screening test and in an accident our only complete records are for deceased drivers as we do not record the blood alcohol level of drink drivers who are injured or survive an accident. In response to the short-comings of the data, we changed the law to enable us to record the blood alcohol of all drivers involved in injury / fatal accidents. The law change also allows the Police to require an evidential (breath / blood) test from seemingly 'sober' drivers.

We expect to have an accurate picture of the real harm being caused by drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration between 0.8 and 0.5 within the next two years. If that evidence shows real harm then I will support lowering the limit. I hope that if that happens all New Zealanders will get behind the lowering of the limit. Changing the blood alcohol limit should not be the only conversation we have about taking more care on our roads. Those who have lost loved ones or have helped the recovery of those who have been injured are constantly reminded of the human cost of not taking greater care on our roads.

Nikki Kaye is on Facebook and Twitter @nikkikaye



Do you have a topic you would like Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern to tackle? Email online-editor@nzherald.co.nz

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